As part of our unique product collaboration with Teva, our goal was to use the partnership to support youth in overcoming systemic barriers and help encourage a sense of adventure and possibility. For this we turned to Boys & Girls Clubs of Hollywood and Metro Denver, two of the most respected chapters in the nation. Both Clubs serve a diverse membership and strive to set their students up for success as they navigate through the world.
To truly understand the impact these chapters have on their members, we asked Mel Culpepper, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Hollywood, and Mia Vasquez-Ortiz, a longtime Metro Denver member, to speak a bit on their experiences and how these Clubs lift up their respective communities.
Cotopaxi: What is your connection to Boys & Girls Clubs?
Mel Culpepper: CEO [of the Boys & Girls Club of Hollywood].
Mia Vasquez-Ortiz: I am a Club member at the J. Churchill Owen Club, which is part of Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver. I'm 16 and currently a junior in high school. I've been coming here for ten years. I've grown up here and I know the Club inside and out.
Cotopaxi: What is the overall mission of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America?
MC: To enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.
MV-O: The mission of Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver is to provide Club Members with a safe, supportive, fun, and enriching environment that inspires and empowers them to achieve their greatest potential.
Cotopaxi: When was your chapter founded?
MV-O: The J. Churchill Owen Club opened in 1967 [as part of Metro Denver, which was founded in 1961].
Cotopaxi: Who are the members of your club, generally speaking?
MC: Students of color, from low-income families living in communities with limited access to resources.
MV-O: The members of my Club are outgoing, adventurous kids, ranging in age from 6 to 18. They are ready to learn and enjoy a creative space where they can be themselves. This Club mainly caters to kids of color. Especially in the Westwood neighborhood here in Denver, we all understand each other's experiences because we all grew up here. I think that is very empowering and creates a sense of belonging.
Cotopaxi: Even though the overall mission is incredibly important, we know each chapter is unique and has its own community, goals and priorities. What sets your chapter apart, and what makes you proud to be a part of your specific club?
MC: Our Club is responsive to the students and families who live and work in our community. We recognize the importance of offering programs that will ensure our student's success, therefore, ensuring the success of the families and our community. I am proud to lead the Hollywood Club because we are driven by the mission of support those that need us the most. When there is no place to go, our doors are open. There are no barriers to services. We are here to serve all students.
MV-O: The Owen Club is perfectly made to serve the kids that attend. The staff here have been working longer than I have been coming here, and they perfectly understand what our kids need. Our Club staff does a great job of making kids feel like they fit in, inspiring us, and giving us really good opportunities. I'm proud to be a part of the Club because - well, there's a lot. We have really cool programs that stand apart; the fact that staff here feel like friends and they are really good at their jobs; and it's also the kids that come here. They make me feel proud. We all get along and understand each other, and that really makes us stand out. I always emphasize the family aspect to the Club because it's so unique. Everyone here feels like a friend.
Cotopaxi: What are some of the core values or principles of your chapter?
MC: Family, Club & Community, Commitment to Academic Success, Spread Love Not Hate, Dream Big.
MV-O: Honesty, trust, perseverance, patience... and the list goes on. Club staff care about our emotional well-being and staff give us space when we need it.
Cotopaxi: What are some of the programs that stand out for you in your chapter, and why?
MC: READS, our literacy program. Reading is fundamental and our students must achieve this most basic skill to have a chance to succeed. Statistics show the students of color are far behind in achieving 3rd grade reading. This is a crisis. 80% of our students are Latinx. We are committed to providing programs that combat this crisis and reduce the number of students who do not read at grade level.
MV-O: Through our Torch Club, which is our leadership program for 10 to 13 year-olds, we started a program called "Our Closet". I am very proud of this program. It's like a thrift store in the Club where you can bring in clothes that no longer fit or serve you. Then, during Thanksgiving dinner at the Club, families and kids can come in and find clothes that work for them for free. For people in the community who can't afford new necessities like that, it gives us a chance to give back in that way, and it helps out our planet a little. I love trying out as many ways as we can to give back. That's why I am so proud of that program because it helps us be more conscious of what we throw away and helps us become more environmentally sustainable while giving back to those in need.
Cotopaxi: The Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating across the entire globe for countless reasons. Can you describe some of what your chapter has had to deal with and some of the ways you’ve worked with your community (internally and externally) to address some of the challenges you all have faced?
MC: The greatest challenge for us has been staying open to serve our students and support working families. We had to pivot to providing services under strict COVID guidelines because many of our parents could not work from home. Parents needed our Club to be open during the pandemic and we did it. We also offered food, basic supplies, and cash aid to families that did not receive COVID relief dollars from the government. We became a "family focused" program in addition to a "student focused" program. We recognized the importance of serving the family, as a unit, addressing as many needs as possible directly or through resources and referrals.
MV-O: When COVID first hit, the Club had to close for two months. As someone who comes daily, not being here for two months really left a void in my life. The Club provides the basics and so much support. When you don't have the space, you appreciate it a lot more. Kids need to get out of the house, socialize, and get the support they need. We were mentally drained by being at home and without resources.
When the Club opened for online learning for the 2020 school year, the staff members were able to offer more support, which we really needed. The Club helped students not fall behind in school. Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver did a great job of being open while following safety guidelines and making the Clubs a safe space during a pandemic.
During this time, the Club offered resources to families who were really affected by the pandemic. They offered a space for children to go, which allowed families to go back to work. The Club provided food, necessities and support for kids and families during this time.
Cotopaxi: When you set out on this partnership with Cotopaxi & Teva, you aligned on some key priorities. Can you speak to what you have accomplished as a result of this relationship?
MC: Our key priorities focus on addressing the inequities in our education system, the lack of access to quality education for students of color and the overall impact of systemic racism. We align with Cotopaxi and Teva through our efforts to ensure that all students have equal access to quality education, social and outdoor recreation, communities free of violence and opportunities for success.
Dawn Rocky, Director of Corporate Relations for BGCMD: This partnership with Cotopaxi and Teva allows us to provide enriching activities and outdoor adventures for Club members all across Denver – truly bringing the spirit of the state of Colorado to life for every kid. We could not be more grateful for this generous support of our programming, which includes partnering with multiple community providers in providing dozens of field trips and excursions beyond our Club walls! Thank you Cotopaxi and Teva!
Cotopaxi: Is there anything else you would want the Cotopaxi/Teva communities to know about BGCH?
MC: In 2022, we will celebrate 85 years of service to students, families, and our community.
MV-O: I want everyone to know that the Club is such an amazing community that is often overlooked. Supporting the Clubs in any way you can really benefit our communities and the next generation. We're more than what people see: we are not just a Club, we are a family. We are empowering youth and therefore the community as a whole. I want people to know that the Club really is one of the best places kids can go after school and in the summer. There aren't enough words to explain my gratitude for such an amazing place. I want to thank anyone who is reading this for supporting the Club, for taking time to read my story and learn why this Club is such an important place for me.