Club copes through COVID

Boys & Girls Club program director Iika Fairley helps Jordan Simmons attend class over video conference at the Boys & Girls Club in McComb.

The Boys & Girls Club of Southwest Mississippi expanded its staff and hours, becoming a virtual school hub to make sure kids didn’t lose a year of education during a global pandemic.

“2020 was one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had to take on during my whole 32 years of being here,” said Randy Tate, chief professional officer of the McComb-based club.

The office had to close its doors in March, and it has lost grant money due to not being able to serve the required amount of children. Staff continued work when possible, checking up on members.

Once reopening was possible, Boys & Girls Clubs of America left the decision to its local sites.

Tate said around 70% of Mississippi’s clubs did not reopen.

“We just felt like our kids needed us to be open,” he said. “They needed a safe place. Their parents needed to go back to work.”

Board members and staff of the McComb club worked to put together a safety package, and state and federal grants including a Paycheck Protection Program loan helped not only reopen the club but also expand its hours and staff.

“The key is opening up safely,” said Charles Beene, a board member who Tate calls the chief volunteer officer.

While the club has normally served 130 kids a day, that has dropped to 40 or 50 a day to make social distancing possible.

In May the board of directors approved safety protocols based on CDC guidelines, and the club reopened for summer programs in mid-June. Those included watch-along staff-led science experiments and art projects, an online game night and a video conference talent show.

Once school was on the horizon, the club found a way to further serve the community by opening its doors throughout the school day for kids needing help to attend virtual classes.

The normal four-hour after school schedule of the McComb club has become a 10-hour day, which covers school hours and the normal afternoon programs.

Now, alongside those life skills and leadership activities, the club is hosting students who are on virtual and hybrid school schedules.

“That included helping them log on, with getting on the different programs, helping them find and complete their assignments. We had to be in constant communication with the teachers. We adapted,” said program director Iika Fairley who has also taken on leadership of the Zoom class program.

The Boys & Girls Club distributed meals to Higgins Middle School students over the summer, an effort led by director of operations Marcus Pittman. The club’s office also served as a community-wide meal pickup site once a month from March to October.

Tate and Beene felt boosting schools was crucial.

“The community wasn’t ready. That’s why it was so important for us to open, so we could help these parents, help these kids,” Tate said.

“I did feel that it was important for us to open, but we’ve had a bigger impact than I even expected. Even though our numbers have been fewer I think we’ve made an even bigger impact,” Beene said.

The club is looking to reinstate some of its regular events in coming weeks, like a Martin Luther King Jr. Day art exhibit and activities of SMART Girls, a health and self-esteem program.

Due to social distancing limits, there is currently a waiting list for membership at the McComb site, but Tate still encourages interested parents to call (601)684-5437 for more information on activity fees and enrollment.

The club also welcomes donations.

“We’ve had fewer kids and more expenses,” Beene said.

Donations can be made in person at 1025 The Positive Place, McComb, MS 39648 by cash, card or check. Checks can also be mailed, and administrator Sheilar Conerly-Pickens said if a company or business wants to donate, staff will even come to them to pick it up.

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