By Alison James
Understanding the impact of community organizations can be difficult when you’ve never benefited from them yourself.
Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Lee County board member Elaine Bak didn’t have that problem which she stepped into her role. As an alumna of a Florida BGC, Bak knows firsthand what the club means to the children who become members.
“They kept me super active,” Bak remembered. “We had a teacher who worked with us on gymnastics. She taught me how to do a back hand spring. I’ll never forget. It was a big deal to me.”
Bak joined the BGC in fifth grade. From then on, she had activities to participate in and people who cared about her.
“I still remember their names,” Bak said. “I mean, I was super young, but – a lot of the counselors there became like family.”
Bak said counselor and coordinators at the Boys and Girls Clubs saw to it that she was looked after, challenged and guided – like one night when she snuck out of her house for a date.
“I was dating this one boy – I was in ninth grade – and I was not allowed to go out of the house, so I snuck out of the house to meet him, and for this ‘date,’ I met him at the Boys and Girls Club to watch a basketball game,” Bak said. “If I was going to go get in trouble, I was in a controlled environment at least. And then, of course, I got in trouble – one of the counselors got mad at me because she knew I wasn’t supposed to be out.”
Bak stayed on with the club even after she aged out of the program, serving as a counselor at the summer camp she had once attended as a club member, the summer she turned 20.
“It was a very rewarding job,” Bak said. One memory, in particular, stands out to her from that summer – of an incident related to her handing out stickers for good behavior at camp.
“A a couple of weeks into it, a little boy had misbehaved, so I ended up putting him away from the group, and he came to me crying and said, ‘Am I not going to get my sticker today? Because my mom asks for that every day when I get home,’” Bak said. “It’s just a sticker, but it means so much more.”
Bak recently shared her personal connection to the BGC on Facebook, shortly into her first year serving on the board of directors. When BGC of Greater Lee County President Wanda Lewis saw the post, she knew it needed to be shared with others.
“It’s always a delight to have a board member or volunteer or anyone who has a story to tell and come back and be a part of a local organization,” Lewis said. “I feel blessed that we have Elaine.”
Lewis said she hopes this will be a catalyst to motivate others in the community to share their stories.
“We love to know who those folks are and would like to connect with them in some way. We want more of those stories. We’d like to publish those stories, if people are willing to do that.”
Lewis said people could contact her to share their personal accounts of time with the BGC.
“I think people who have been impacted by their involvement in the Boys and Girls Clubs really are our strongest advocates and many times our strongest supporters,” Lewis said. “They know what it means.”
What it meant to Bak was a childhood and adulthood she knows she wouldn’t have had without the support of the BGC.
“If you’re not around adults to control and guide you, and you’re making those decisions on your own with peer pressure only, it’s really hard to make good choices,” Bak said. “I was not very good with peer pressure, and I always wanted to fit in. If I hadn’t had that to keep me occupied, I probably would have made some really bad choices … If Boys and Girls Club wasn’t here, imagine all those children who would have nowhere else to go.”
Bak said she also hopes to dispel negative stigmas associated with the BGC.
“I don’t think anyone understands, really, what happens there,” Bak said. “You can just see the way the club interacts here with the kids. There is that bond … I strongly believe it is because of my personal experience with the club that I got involved. And it makes me sad – when you talk about things you’re passionate about like this with other people, and they have no idea how important it is. I wish more people could get to know how it’s really impacted the community.”
To get involved, share your story or find out more about the local BGC, call 745-2582