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Alive And Kicking

Alma Boys & Club finds way to flourish during pandemic

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By Kevin Taylor

Alma Schools 

The front door swings open as kids jostle for position while lining up to enter the front door of the Alma Boys & Girls Club. It's not yet 3:20 as an unseasonably warm November breeze slaps a group of third-graders in the face. 


Through their masks, attached at each ear lobe, smiling kids are eager to do what most 8-year-olds do this time of year — shoot baskets, play tag and eat snacks. 


(There’s little chance none of the 92 kids preparing to enter ABGC on this day aren't hungry).  


Peering through a window of her office, ABGC Executive Director Elaina Damante does her best to remain focused on her daily tasks — though the sheer fact that kids are readying to enter the club is a victory in itself. 


"We are keeping our ratios low to ensure proper social distancing but still helping as many children as we can," Damante said. "Instead of a set ratio like 1:10, we are basing it off the square feet in each room, leaving enough room for each child to social distance six feet."


It's been a hard eight months for Damante and her staff. The uncertainty of a pandemic can be overwhelming for all involved. Rich, poor or indifferent, it’s affected all mankind in some way. 


Last spring, when the coronavirus sent everyone home, a stunned Damante pondered the club's future. 


What now?


"Closing last spring was a difficult decision," she said. "It really weighed heavy on our hearts. So many of our members and families rely on us for our services.


"Of course, our No. 1 priority is to keep our children safe, but it was so hard to tell families that we were closed when so many of them still needed us."


Damante spent many sleepless nights tossing and turning over those suddenly turned away by a pandemic no one saw coming.


"We worried about how families would be getting food," she said. "We worried about how the shutdown would affect our own members' mental health. We knew that having a change in routine was going to have a huge impact on them emotionally. 


"And of course, we worried about members and their families staying safe and healthy."


Like everyone, already tired and restless from a 75-day shutdown last spring, the club reopened in June after Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson gave his blessing.  


Damante and her staff began prepping for a rebirth of sorts in the weeks before Hutchinson was to say yay or nay as to allowing boys and girls clubs to reopen. 


“We started preparing for our kids to come back before we knew when we could open," Damante said. "Throughout the shutdown, we made sure to purchase cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and masks when we could, in an anticipation of when we would reopen — which was a good thing because it was a week and a half in between finding out we could reopen under the summer camp guidelines and opening our doors on June 1st."


Let's Eat!


Damante insists today's kids depend on the club for various reasons, especially when it comes to food. 


"We have so many families in all our units that struggle with food and insecurity,” she said. “Many of our children rely on school meals and meals from the club to get through the week. That is why it was so important to us to continue to serve meals while the club was closed."


Damante said the Alma Boys & Girls Club did whatever it took during the shutdown. 


"We began serving 'to go' meals the last week of March," she said. "Between April and May, our clubs served over 3,000 meals to families under 18 years of age. We went to an apartment and a teenager opened the door. After giving a meal to this child, we began talking to him and realized that he was staying home to take care of his five younger siblings, as his mom had to continue working. We ended up delivering meals to these six children every day for the rest of the time we served 'to go' meals."

Let's Eat


Helping hand 


As much as they want to help, there's only so much money to go around, Damante said. It's imperative the club keeps close relations with donors.


"Involved and dedicated donors have been an anchor in providing stability and sustainability for our organization," she said. “We have written grants, but they are limited right now because of COVID. Donations from individual donors and organizations keep our doors open to provide critical services for our members. 


"Even the smallest donation makes a huge impact."


Damante said a $10 monthly donation is enough to sponsor a child for an entire school year. 


"Donating to the club not only impacts the members attending the Club, but it is also an investment in our community. For every $1 invested in the Boys & Girls Clubs in Arkansas, $17.30 is returned to the local community."


Numbers Down 


This time a year ago, the Alma unit was averaging close to 185 kids per day. Because of COVID restrictions, those numbers are down to between 75 and 100, Damante said. 


Alma also oversees the Mountainburg and Paris Boys & Girls clubs, she said. 


"For the 2020 After School Program, we are averaging between 75 and 100 children per day at the Alma Unit, 25 at Mountainburg, and about 50 at Paris,” Damante said. “When we opened during the summer, it was a huge difference compared to what we were used to. The Alma unit only registered 60 children total."


The Paris unit was limited to 40 children, she said.


"We only opened to children of essential workers and single-parent families at first, because we had to be careful," Damante said. "We had to limit the number of children we have enrolled this year by almost half in order to continue keeping our members and staff safe."


Damante said there are 815 kids across its three units signed up this year, compared with 1,450 in 2019-20. Last year, the three clubs averaged more than 250 children per day. 


Although some summer normalcy returned last June with the return of American Legion and USSSA travel baseball, kids in the Paris unit lost out, Damante said. 


"The Paris unit runs all the (little league) sports in Paris," she said. "This spring, we had to cancel baseball, softball and T-ball; we had 270 children signed up for those sports this year. It was difficult to have to tell everyone that they wouldn't be able to play because of COVID.


Fortunately, football, cheer and basketball programs picked up this fall in Paris, Damante said, although there were 170 kids participating in various fall sports, compared with 270 in 2019. 


Adopt a Kid


Though there is talk of a vaccine at some point in 2021, potentially slowing the spread of COVID, getting back to normal isn't something that anyone expects to happen anytime soon. 


But Damante and Co. aren't sitting on their hands. 


"We are going to continue serving our kids and their families through this difficult time," Damante said. "We currently have our Adopt a Club kid program going at our Alma unit. It is like an angel tree. Members of the community can pick up a child's wish list and go shopping for that child for Christmas, or donate to the club and we will do the shopping for you."


Damante said the clubs are exploring virtual options as well.


"We are also looking into how to provide virtual options and club programming at all three of our locations, in order to reach those members that are not currently attending in person," she said. "We really just want to continue making a difference in the lives of the children in our communities."


Job Well Done


Damante's staff remains as tight-knit today as they were during the uncertainty of last spring's shutdown. 


"We have such an amazing staff," she said. "Through all of this, they have really shown how much they care about our members. Every day, they come in with great attitudes and ready to keep things as normal as possible — playing games, helping with homework, being great mentors. Not only have they been so positive about everything, they are going above and beyond when it comes to keeping our members safe. 


"They are cleaning and sanitizing the entire time they are here, all while wearing masks from the time they get here to the time they leave."

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