The new president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America on Monday started his first day on the job in the city where the movement began 151 years ago, saying it's time for "a better life" for children.
Jim Clark visited members at the club in Hartford's Asylum Hill neighborhood on the final day of their winter vacation. He spoke to them about the importance of staying in school, keeping physically active and not bullying.
For the past eight years, Clark was CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, where he more than doubled the number of young people who are served by the clubs and created programs that improved literacy and high school graduation rates. He said children today face "a very fragile" economic system and the nation is at a crossroads.
As the new national Boys & Girls Clubs president, he said, he plans to start a campaign to raise awareness about the problems kids face _ such as one in five living in poverty and three out of 10 dropping out of high school _ and how the clubs can help.
Clark said the youths served by the clubs, many located in urban neighborhoods, "deserve nothing less than a strong start to life and a chance to overcome the obstacles that they've been dealt."
"It's time for a better life for kids here in America," he said.
The previous Boys & Girls Clubs of America president, Roxanne Spillett, retired after 16 years heading the Atlanta-based organization, which promotes academic success, good character and healthy lifestyles for children.
The clubs offer adult mentors, safe places to gather, constructive activities and personal development programs during non-school hours. They trace their roots to 1860, when three Hartford women, Elizabeth Hammersley and sisters Mary and Alice Goodwin, started the Dashaway Club to help provide local boys who roamed the streets with a positive alternative.
The women opened their homes to the disadvantaged boys and offered food, music and books, according to a club history. Several years later, their club became known as the Good Will Club, operating in downtown Hartford. The idea spread, and in 1906, 53 local, independent clubs decided to affiliate. That ultimately led to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
There are nearly 4,000 clubs in the United States and overseas, serving about 4 million youths annually, Clark said.
Boys & Girls Clubs alumni include retired Gen. Wesley Clark, Denzel Washington, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Jennifer Lopez and Usher.