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A plan to foster a club for kids

The task seems insurmountable.

Organizers hoping to have a Boys and Girls Club open at the former teen center in Crystal River by the time schools let out must consolidate support among residents and businesses, set up directors for the club and pull together dozens of loose ends.

The biggest challenge in the remaining two months may be raising the money, estimated to be about $60,000, to get the club ready for a summer opening. This in a recession-wracked county without many companies in position to make large donations.

It doesn't help any that the club would be near an area that has been plagued in recent months by violence and drug problems.

But those who doubt the club will ever open haven't met George Flowers or the other city leaders who say Crystal River and the rest of Citrus County stand ready to support the effort.

There's little more than blind faith driving the effort at this point. But the organizers say if faith can move mountains, it certainly can start a Boys and Girls Club.

"If the dream's big enough," says Mayor Curtis Rich, "the facts don't count."

And Police Chief Roger Krieger said he thinks the community will back a group that is trying to re-establish some

needed old-fashioned values.

"In today's society, you've got the breakdown of the family unit, the changing values and the lack of role models," he said. "The Boys and Girls Clubs can add all these positive things back into the formula again."

A proven track record

When the City Council took a hard look at the youth unrest and crime that peaked during the past summer, they identified several causes, including a scarcity of organized youth activities.

Flowers thinks that he has found a solution in the Boys and Girls Clubs.

"If they've been around for 125 years, then they're using a formula that's been tried and it works," said Flowers, who came to Crystal River 18 months ago from Georgia. "The Boys and Girls Clubs have a proven track record."

In Florida, there are more than 50 Boys and Girls Clubs. Nationwide, there are more than 200. The clubs rely on donations and support from such groups as the United Way.

Their activities are as diverse as their membership and include athletic programs, field trips, tutoring and latchkey programs, arts and crafts, and a chance simply to socialize in a secure setting (related story, Page 1).

Although he was never a member himself and he has no children of his own, Flowers learned about the organization through a friend who has served as the director of the Boys and Girls Clubs in Valdosta.

Flowers, who operates Compare Barbecue in Crystal River, said the group's recipe for success includes treating the youngsters with respect. Members, from age 6 to 18, help choose the club's activities and events.

"There will be a paid director," he explained. "But the club is for the children and the children are going to have a lot of say in it. You can lead them to something (an adult chooses), but that may not be what they're interested in."

The club charges members a small annual fee, but it's as much to help the child feel a certain amount of ownership as it is a way to make ends meet. Most clubs set up fee schedules based on a family's income.

In some clubs, the members work at the club in lieu of paying their annual fee. Sponsors sometimes pay the fee. Flowers said he has already heard from local businesses that would be willing to sponsor children.

Clearing the hurdles

The Crystal River group has already cleared one hurdle that has tripped up other fledgling Boys Clubs: finding a building. Last week, City Council approved a tentative lease allowing the club to use the city-owned teen club, built three years ago through the generosity of an anonymous donor.

The next hurdle is equally substantial: raising $60,000 in start-up and operating funds. The money will pay for an executive director, any part-time workers who must be hired as well as operational expenses.

To find those dollars, Flowers has brought together a steering committee of bank officials, a lawyer, a school teacher, a businessman and a representative of a local radio station. On Tuesday, he expects to set up a board of directors and to begin the official fund-raising campaign for the club.

"I've talked to corporate officers," he said. "A lot of them have children and they've all been children. They know there's nothing here to do. . . . This is a safe alternative."

Flowers wants to have the club operating by the summer, because that's traditionally when youngsters have the most idle time on their hands. But that means he has to raise the funds by late March or early April.

"There is big money here, but we need people who are going to make a commitment," Flowers said, noting that the club needs support not just from Crystal River but from the entire county. His grand vision includes satellite centers around the county.

The troubles that have erupted at the teen center and in nearby neighborhoods have earned the area a bad reputation among county residents, but Flowers says fears for safety are unwarranted.

"The teen center is not in a bad neighborhood. What has happened is that the media has blown a lot of things out of proportion," he said.

Flowers said that any bad feelings about the teen center should be removed by the hiring of a professional director who will maintain discipline at the club. "That makes all the difference in the world," he said.

Krieger said that he doesn't see the neighborhood itself hampering the efforts to start the organization.

"If we can show that this thing is moving in a positive direction, I think they can find the funds," he said. "They've done it all over the country and that's one of the things we've liked about the Boys and Girls Clubs. Crystal River doesn't have problems like Chicago, Pittsburgh or Detroit."

Saving the children

Despite the challenges, those involved in pushing for the Boys and Girls Clubs say their's is an important goal.

"If you can get to a child at an early age and start molding their minds and personalities in the right direction, then by the time they get to be 18-20, you don't have half the problems," said Mayor Rich.

"It's going to be a selling job and I don't know of any other way," he said. "Credibility is going to be the key, but this thing is off to a really good start."

While the concept of a teen night club didn't work, Rich said he sees many of the Boys and Girls Clubs programs as just the ticket to keep children interested and involved. "It needs to be a full-service program," he said.

Krieger said he sees children who have not been required to expend much energy in their home life out looking for entertainment.

"They have a tremendous amount of energy that needs to be channeled and directed and the schools do some of that," Krieger said. "But the community needs to get into that."

He acknowledges that the oldest children and young adults, those who are causing most of the problems now, will probably not be interested in a Boys and Girls Club. Instead, Krieger said he hopes to attract younger children.

"I don't want to be losing them," Krieger said.

Flowers said he, too, has his eye on that next generation of youngsters.

"We're not just talking about the children of today, but the adults of tomorrow. These are our council members, planning commissioners and maybe even a president of the United States," Flowers said. "With this we could save the children."