"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Jim Ventress, chief professional officer of the Boys and Girls Club of the Santa Clarita Valley. The following interview was conducted Aug. 5. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: Chief Professional Officer that's a fairly new title for you. You were always executive director; did you get a promotion or a raise?
Ventress: Well not so much a raise, but I think that's the way the national movement has kind of gone. And then also, when we started the foundation, we had to have an executive director of the foundation, which is Judy Belue. So we've just (moved) titles around a little bit.
Signal: Foundation that would be the money-raising arm?
Ventress: That's the money arm. Keep the doors open, pay the bills.
Signal: What's your annual budget?
Ventress: Right now we are at $1.2 million. The majority of our budget still comes from our community through our fund-raising efforts. As we expand with the new club in Canyon Country, the decision to go with the foundation a couple of years ago was to increase the board so we'd be in a position where we could do more fund-raising and raise the dollars to serve more kids.
Signal: How much does of your budget does United Way provide?
Ventress: United Way traditionally has been $125,000, and that is to use as we see fit which I like, because we kind of know where we need to use the money instead of someone dictating, "You have to use it for this or that." We feel, after 36 years serving this community, we kind of know what we're doing.
Signal: So the bulk of your budget comes from the community?
Ventress: Yes. That's the board of directors and Judy and Karen and Don and the staff at the foundation they have to come up with the money.
Signal: How long have you been with the Boys and Girls Club?
Ventress: In Santa Clarita, 19 years.
Signal: And before that?
Ventress: I was (with) the Silesian Boys Club of Los Angeles for eight years before I came out here.
Signal: How many people were on staff when you came here in 1985?
Ventress: Thirteen or 14, I think.
Signal: How many are there today?
Ventress: Forty and that's the paid staff.
Signal: How many kids did you serve then, and how many now?
Ventress: I think when we started we were around 700 with the satellite system, and we had the five actually four small clubhouses and playground programs. One of the reasons I came out was, the board wanted to put up a big building and eventually replace the small buildings with big buildings to try to keep up with the growth of the community; plus, it offered more activities to the young people, which you need a full service building to do. That intrigued me. So I said, "Let's give it a shot."
We worked hard with developing the board and the committee for the capital campaign for the Newhall club, spearheaded by Dr. (Clyde) Smyth and Tom Lee and Tom Veloz and Sam Garcia. That was in 1988 (when) we started to campaign, and we did the groundbreaking in '91 and opened the Newhall club in '92.
Signal: Was the Val Verde facility in existence when you arrived?
Ventress: Yes. Val Verde started in 1981, but we were down in a little room by the pool. It took us a few years, (but) in the early '90s we convinced them that we should be up in the big building, which is 4,000 square feet. And it serves us well.
Signal: Your big push, these last couple of years, has been to open the facility on the campus of Sierra Vista Junior High.
Ventress: That's right. Another partnership, and it works in this community, and we've had other communities come down to take a look to see how do we do it. We just basically say, "It's common sense."
I love the project at Sierra Vista. It makes so much sense where, here's a school, and their purpose is to educate the kids during the day; and here we are, an after school program. A lot of parents are working, so what do the kids do after school? We provide this service, which (includes) a variety of activities anywhere from getting your homework done to accessing a computer to the art center to sports to games.
So as we sat down, and Bob Lee was very important to us, with Tom Dierckman, to really sit down and start talking strategy
Signal: The Hart district superintendent and the vice president of Newhall Land
Ventress: Right. (Dierckman) at that time was the president of our board for two terms. We just started focusing on the fact that the school needed classrooms; we needed classrooms. The school needed a larger gym; we needed a gym. Our focus was to expand in Canyon Country, and the area where the junior high school is, is perfect for our type of program.
So along with Sheldon Allen and a few other people, things started to move, and before you knew it, we were talking. Then we got the city involved, and (former Parks Director) Rick Putnam came aboard, and (former City Manager) George Caravalho, and we just started really working hard to make this work.
The first couple of designs were, like, pretty way out. It started off as a $4 million project and it wound up being a $6 million project.
Signal: Where did all that money come from?
Ventress: From different pots. We were able to because it was a public and private partnership, there was actually some money in the state about four years ago for either libraries or multipurpose rooms or gymnasiums. We raised our hands and said we were going to share this gym. The school would have it in the day, and we would have it after school, and on the weekends (the city's) Parks and Recreation Department would have it.
All of sudden, we were like the poster child for those dollars up there. Everyone started calling us to get ideas of how we were doing it. We received about $1.1 million for the gym from the state, and the school district had over $1 million for classrooms, and they got that matched by the state.
Our city came in because we had to redo the whole field as part of the project, so they came in at $1.2 million, and then the club was able to raise close to $1 million through foundations, and then brought (in) another half-million dollars from the community itself so far.
Signal: You've also gotten some federal dollars, haven't you?
Ventress: Actually, the federal dollars were for operational purposes.
Signal: The hardest to raise.
Ventress: Oh yes. But it did allow us to take some of our auction dollars that we were generally using for operations, (and) to put some of those dollars aside to help with the brick and mortar of the new building. And that was (Rep.) Buck McKeon. That was some 21st Century dollars that spread over three and a half years over $900,000.
Signal: The Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness that McKeon chairs
Ventress: Right. But the focus is educational programs after school, and we do a program called Project Learn. We do a lot of fun activities in every area of the club, and we have emphasis on learning, but we make it fun.
Signal: How many kids do you serve at the Sierra Vista facility?
Ventress: Sierra Vista on a typical day, their range is anywhere from 275 to maybe 325. It depends on what day it is. The Newhall club is roughly 200 to 225. And our Val Verde club is around 45 to 60 kids a day.
Signal: But not all kids come every day; what's your total enrollment?
Ventress: Total membership now is over 2,600 kids. A typical day in the system is anywhere from 500 to 600 kids a day.
Signal: It wasn't long ago that you were at 1,400.
Ventress: As a matter a fact, I think two years ago we were 1,400.
Signal: That's pretty wild growth.
Ventress: Yes, that's what a full-service building will do for you. (Sierra Vista is) 2,700 square feet, and the beautiful part about it is the partnership with the school. I mean, we're not just sharing a gym; we're actually sharing classrooms, and our teachers and staff have very good relationships, and we are actually sharing equipment. We are so proud of the computer center there. There are 32 computers. The school paid for 16, we paid for 16, but during the day the school uses 32, and after school, we use 32.
Signal: So the junior high actually holds classes in the facility?
Ventress: Oh, yeah. As a matter of fact, there are also two state-of-the-art chemistry labs that the school uses. So it's really a shared-use facility.
Signal: I remember back in the early '70s, I'd go over to the Boys Club it wasn't a Boys and Girls Club yet to play pool and what do you call it? Foosball?
Ventress: Foosball. We still do Foosball.
Signal: Over at your Newhall facility, I think you still have the same foosball table.
Ventress: Probably. But we painted it.
Signal: Today you offer quite a bit more than pool and foosball, and it's more than just a place for kids to go. What's the mission?
Ventress: It's character development. It's helping young people become leaders, make good decisions, and (become) good citizens (who will) contribute to society and not take away from it. A lot of the things that we do are we try to give attention and recognition.
Let's talk about the games, for example. When we had the tournaments, we put your name in as being in the tournaments for the 10- to 12-year-old ping-pong tournament or the 13- to 15-year-old foosball tournament. So your name is up (on the wall), and we put photos up of different activities, and when someone brings their friend to the club for the first time, they go around and look at the wall and they (say), "That's me and that's me and that's me." And they're so proud.
Maybe they're in a shot in a basketball game, or maybe there's a shot when they're out at the beach. Just yesterday, we took some great pictures. We had 35 teenagers out at Catalina for the full day, and we went all the way up to the top and got some fantastic shots. So once those are up, you know,, they'll be telling their friends, "That's me in Catalina."
So it's that recognition, making the kids feel good about themselves.
Signal: If your focus is character development, do you have licensed clinical social workers on staff?
Ventress: No. I think there (are) simply things that you can do on a consistent basis where you give young people an opportunity to grow, to lead. You can become the captain on the team, or in the arts center, we may have you in charge of a project and you have to work with these five kids. Or in the learning center, you may be in charge of a team that is going to do what we call the Powerball Program. In the next half hour you've got to look on the Internet and find the answers to these 20 questions and you're heading your team up. So you give them some responsibility that way.
Signal: Who are the kids you serve? In Newhall you're located in a neighborhood with a large Latino community. In Val Verde there's an Anglo, Latino and black population. Are you targeting minority or perhaps economically disadvantaged kids?
Ventress: Well, we keep the fee base low. I mean, $2 a month, $24 dollars a year, are the fees to become a member of the club. And because of the fees being low, it will attract kids from low income or moderate incomes who can't afford maybe some of the other great programs we have out here. And they may not know that some programs have scholarships or whatever, but they know they can come to the club and get a membership.
We also target our single-parent situations where, you know, usually a majority of the time it's the mom who has the kids, and she depends on the club every day to be there. She depends on our staff making sure her kids get their homework done at the club, so when they come home at night there's some quality time, and she's going to be tired, so she doesn't have to spend half an hour with Johnny and half an hour with Becky trying to get the homework done. She can take five minutes and just review that homework because it got done at the club.
Also, because of the latchkey (situation) if you notice, our location at Newhall is right across from the middle school, Placerita. Our partnership is at Sierra Vista. We pick up at Arroyo Seco with the van, and now the two new junior high schools are on our routes to pick up, and then we'll be working on La Mesa. So our vans will be going to all the middle schools and bringing them to the full-service buildings that are across the street or on the campus of the middle school.
We have a ton of kids in latchkey situations where mom and dad both work, and by the time they're in middle school they've outgrown day care, and the club becomes kind of that cool spot where they can go. They can pick or choose, at 12 years old if I don't want to go to the art center, I don't have to go to the art center. The structure of child care doesn't apply anymore to the 12-year-old. When they were 6 and 7, yeah, they needed the structure, but now that they're older, it's up to them. They know they have practice on Tuesday and their game is on Thursday. They may want to do an art project on Wednesday and then maybe hang out in the computer center. Or some days, they come in and they're in a mood and they just want to hang out. So they get with their friends and just kick it in the game room, or they just hang out and talk. You try and just give them that space.
A lot of the middle school kids who are on latchkey will attract a lot of kids there, too. There's just a whole variety. It's open to any kid, but I think those three areas are where we attract a lot of kids from. It's quite a mix.
Signal: Is junior high your biggest age range?
Ventress: I would say probably they're about 40 percent of the population, especially at Sierra Vista.
Signal: Kids as young as what age can come?
Signal: And how old?
Ventress: Seventeen, or a senior in high school. And we do get high school kids coming in who have kind of grown up, and after they're out of junior high school, in the 9th and 10th grade, they're still hanging at the club because it's like a second home. They haven't been able to get a car yet, they haven't been able to get a job yet. So they still will hang out at the club. Then we get a lot of the older kids, too, who are kind of seasonal. They'll be there for the CalArts program we have a partnership with them so they may come in for digital arts or photography when we run those programs, and other times they'll come in because we have good basketball leagues.
Signal: Junior high is that precarious age when kids often experiment with drugs; do you see the club functioning as a deterrent?
Signal: What's interesting with the Newhall club we've kind of grown with some of the families, and it has kind of created its own thing, where at Sierra Vista, this is our first year. When you start talking about 1,300 (kids), of which over 1,100 are brand new you're trying to teach them the Boys and Girls Club way, which is totally new to them. That has been a big challenge.
And there are things especially with middle school kids. That language. We're old school. There are just certain things that you cannot say in the club. They have pushed the staff, and the staff has worked hard to say, "Hey, if you're going to come to this club, we can communicate without that kind of language." It has taken a lot of work and time. They're making some headway there.
But I think, probably, that the fact that (the kids) start to see that the staff and the club actually do care, and that the club is more than just that building it's the people, the staff; the people who work there that actually listen to them, take time out and try to give them some advice.
Also, the staff gets to knowing the family. So if we see something, or some of the kids see behavior they see that (someone is) starting to hang out with (a bad) crowd their friends will come in and tell that certain staff person. Then, from there, maybe we get a parents' conference or whatever and we say, we're starting to notice that (their child is) going a little haywire.
Signal: Do you have counselors who work one-on-one with the kids?
Ventress: We do (some) small counseling. But when we see that it starts to be something heavy, we do a lot of referrals, especially (to) the Child and Family Center. They've got the pros over there. So if it seems like it's a little heavy, we just get mom and say, "You want to call this number," and we do the referrals there.
Signal: Do the kids generally want to conform to what you call the "Boys and Girls Club way?"
Ventress: Actually, I think they just want to know what the boundaries are. I think the biggest challenge for our staff is to stay consistent, so the same rule on Tuesday applies on Thursday. The same rule, whether it's in the game room, applies if its in the gym or the learning center.
There are the do's and the don'ts at the club, and staying consistent I think that's where our staff does a pretty good job. It stays consistent, and (the kids) just have to learn that this is the way it is. I find the high majority of kids (comply), once they just know, here are the guidelines.
Our staff is also very good at picking up young people who have that leadership (potential), and you say, "Let's make sure this young person gets a leadership role." Sometimes (the staff will say), "Hey, can you give me a hand? Why don't you call everybody's name off for the field trip that we're going on?" And all of sudden, you see this 15-year-old with a clipboard in a little position of power or even talking over the PA system. Just say, "Why don't you page everyone and say we are going to serve snacks in two minutes?" And they like to get on (the PA system) and say, "All right, attention everybody. Snacks in two minutes." And when they come down, it's like, wow.
Signal: Beyond sharing the facility at Sierra Vista, does the club have a relationship with the school districts? Do they come to you and say, "We need to look out for this kid and get him into the program?"
Ventress: We are starting to do that more. At the junior high, we have gotten together with some of the teachers from day one. They helped in some of the designs of the facility, and (Principal) Randy Parker has just been outstanding in allowing us to relate with some of the teachers. But we want to do more outreach in our second year to the elementary schools.
We've talked to a few teachers, like at Cedarcreek and Canyon Springs. We're starting to talk to a few more, at Fair Oaks. We are actually going to start some transportation from Canyon Springs to the club, and Fair Oaks, because we've been getting a lot of phone calls "How does my child get there after school? I don't want them walking too far." At the Newhall club, we pick up at 11 schools now. We're going to pilot those two schools in Canyon Country, and eventually we'll be picking up at more and more schools and bringing them to the Sierra Vista club.
Signal: What is on your front burner for the rest of 2004?
Ventress: I think one of the things we want to continue to do is expand our board. ... We are running out of our 21st Century funding at the end of this year that has been roughly $300,000 a year from federal government. They are turning that over to the state, and from what we understand, they may not be as generous.
So the big challenge is for the foundation and the board to be able to come up (with fund-raisers) like our first golf tournament. ... We have a chance of making $60,000 or $70,000 off of that. Also, our Festival of Trees last year for our first time ever, we netted over $100,000, and we had a great group of volunteers and a lot of new volunteers. Anna Ott and Gary and Myrna Condie kind of led that new fund-raiser, and it was awesome. (We need to be) able to get these dollars as we lose some of the federal money and still be able to maintain what we created with the second facility.
On the program side, we continue staff training we have quite a few new staff (members) in Canyon Country as we go into our second year, continue their training, and also get the kids, in their second year in the club, to keep learning, this is the Boys and Girls Club way; and start to see Sierra Vista develop (an) identity of that building and that clubhouse in that community.
Signal: Hundreds of community volunteers help the club every year. There are plenty of nonprofits that would love to have that level of support. What's your secret?
Ventress: Well, first of all, the leadership of the committee people (themselves) whether it's the auction people, like the Jami Kennedys and the Sheldon and the Pat Allens, or the board of directors, and now the foundation board. It starts with the leadership, but if you go back to the auctions, there are (something) like 18 committees, and each committee has a chair, and those chairs those are the ones who make it all happen, working with the foundation staff.
Signal: But why the Boys and Girls Club, as opposed to helping some other organization?
Ventress: I think they see what we do. We try to make sure we market. We can always do a better job. But I think people come and see the buildings, they see the kids, they see the vans, they read stories. And it's still a small community. So-and-so will tell so-and-so, and some of our donors they have their company make donations, and they find out that a couple of their employees' kids go to the club. So it's still a community. People still talk, and our staff does a good job and makes it happen.
I think people will continue to come out and support, and with all the growth they see one building go up, and they see another building go up. They know the money that they helped raise is staying in this community and going directly to those kids. They see it happen.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.