The roots of Boys and Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) can be traced back over 150 years to when three civic-minded Connecticut women organized the first club to help boys in need to get off the streets. From its humble beginnings, BGCA has become a well-respected national organization with a presence in communities across the country, as well as Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and military bases worldwide. Keep reading for a closer look at the history and evolution of BGCA.
Early History – Club Beginnings
In 1860, sisters Mary and Alice Goodwin joined Elizabeth Hammersley in founding the first club that would form the basis of BGCA. Known as The Dashaway Club, it began casually when the women invited a group of boys roaming the streets into their Hartford, Connecticut, homes for refreshments and recreation. The Dashaway Club soon expanded its home-based locations, leading the founders to rent a meeting hall to hold activities for club participants.
Two decades after its founding, The Dashaway Club underwent a reorganization led by another prominent Hartford woman, Mary Stuart Hall. Hall, who was Connecticut’s first female lawyer, renamed the club The Good Will Boys Club and directed its focus on proving that misbehaved street children could develop into productive members of society if given the right support and guidance. She specifically used her background in law to teach the boys and young men societal rules and expectations. Hall worked closely with the club for nearly five decades until her death in 1927.
Clubs Spread across the Country
By the time Hall began the reorganization of The Dashaway Club, similar organizations had already been established in cities outside of Hartford. One of the first of these was a club in New Haven that formed in the early 1870s. Led by John C. Collins, the club was based on a system of supportive guidance that is still a large part of the BGCA environment. Collins went on to develop a network of clubs throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Another early club, and one of the first to use “Boys’ Club” in its name, was The Boys’ Club of New York. The organization was founded in 1876 on the East Side of Manhattan by railroad magnate E.H. Harriman. As it grew in popularity, the club had to move to a five-story building to accommodate the large number of members. Soon, these early boys’ clubs in New York and New England were joined by similar organizations in other parts of the country. By the early 20th century, over three dozen clubs were operating in cities such as Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Nashville, and San Francisco.
Becoming a National Organization
The growing number of boys’ clubs in the United States led a group of early club leaders to join forces as part of a national movement. Their work led to the founding of the Federated Boys’ Clubs in 1906. The 53 clubs that comprised the federated union were the original members of a national organization that would be renamed Boys’ Clubs Federation in 1915 and Boys’ Clubs of America in 1931.
Over the next few decades, the Boys’ Clubs movement continued to spread across the country. By the early 1970s, the United States was home to 1,000 Clubs serving 1 million children. In 1980, the organization dropped the apostrophe from its name to become Boys Clubs of America. However, this name was short-lived.
Starting in the 1950s, Clubs nationwide had also started welcoming many female participants, a fact that wasn’t reflected in the “Boys’ Club” moniker. To recognize that girls were a welcome part of the organization, its leaders launched an effort to change its name in the late 1980s. In September 1990, the national organization’s name was officially changed to Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Boys and Girls Clubs Today
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, membership in Boys and Girls Clubs of America continued to grow. By the time BGCA celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2006, approximately 2,000 local Clubs were helping over 2.5 million children and teens. Today, BGCA membership sits at over 4.7 million youth at more than 4,600 Club facilities.
In recent years, BGCA has focused on expanding the reach and scope of its programs. There are now over 1,000 Clubs in rural areas and nearly 500 BGCA-affiliated youth facilities on military installations around the globe. Additionally, there are more than 300 Clubs in public housing areas and nearly 200 Clubs on native lands.
From the earliest days of the organization, the programming at BGCA has sought to build good character and leadership while promoting healthy lifestyles and academic success. While the focus remains the same today, the group’s Academic Success Programs have changed somewhat in recent years to emphasize 21st-century skills. Members across all Clubs now take part in a variety of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) activities via programs such as Computer Science Pathway, DIY STEM, and Tech Girls Rock.
This type of programming now plays a key role in ensuring that BGCA can fulfill its mission and vision in order to help young people reach their full potential and find success as responsible, caring, and productive citizens. More information about BGCA’s history and its current programs is available at www.bgca.org.
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