For a quarter of a century, thousands of young people in western Sussex County have had education enrichment and recreational opportunities made available through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware’s local operations.
It was in the mid-1990s, that community business, education, faith and civic organizations came together to find a way to address what was a lack of after-school youth development activities available in a structured, safe environment. It was then that consideration was given to bring Boys & Girls Clubs to western Sussex County.
The concept of a youth organization like Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware was presented to long time Seaford educator, counselor and coach John Hollis by Seaford Mayor Guy Longo and Assistant City Manager Ron Breeding. The two city leaders saw Hollis as a key to helping to bring the project into fruition.
Breeding said Hollis was one of the first people who came to mind when considering a project leader. “I had worked with John on the Seaford School District Pride Committee and knew him to be a real mover and shaker, somebody who would get things done,” he said.
In the mid-1990s Hollis was instrumental in developing an annual event, “Festival for Youth,” which promoted and celebrated the academic excellence of area youth. Hollis had forged a close friendship with Johns Hopkins Chief of Child Neurosurgery, Dr. Ben Carson and like Hollis, he had an interest in supporting the academic achievements of young people. This friendship resulted in Carson being a keynote speaker for the Festival for Youth, which at the time was in its third year.
Hollis felt Carson’s presence and the Festival for Youth would be a hand-in-hand fit in support of a project to build a new youth center. However, before accepting the challenge of chairing a major project like this, he had a few stipulations.
“First of all, the project had to be a western Sussex County concept, not just involve one community,” he said. “I also wanted the Festival for Youth to be a part of the project and I wanted to make sure we had a feasibility study to indicate that this project would be supported by the community.”
When at first there was talk about renovating an existing building, Hollis expressed concerns. “If I made a commitment to this project, I believed the area would be best served with a new, full-service facility,” he said. “I think in my mind there were three basic reasons why I felt Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware would be the way to go. Facilities built by Boys & Girls Clubs stay open. Also, their formula for youth development matches my own feelings regarding the building of self-esteem in young people. And these people were willing to come downstate from Wilmington to attend our meetings. That, to me, showed commitment.”
Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware agreed to pay for the feasibility study and the results showed conclusively that the western Sussex area would support the building of a $3.5 million youth center.
With the support of then Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware President and CEO George Krupanski, and the organization’s board, community leaders, led by Hollis, set out to find the funding and location to build a new facility to be housed in the Seaford community. A Board of Directors comprised of a cross-section of community business, faith-based and civic leaders formed with Hollis serving as its first President.
In addition, several prominent names were listed as honorary board members including former Delaware Gov. Elbert Carvel, of Laurel, then Gov. Thomas Carper and Dr. Carson. Carper also agreed to serve as honorary capital campaign chairman.
Hollis said the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware suggested that there be 20 members on the Board of Directors. “We asked 50 people to serve on the Board and all but five said yes,” he said. “We ended up having the largest Board of Directors of any club in Delaware.”
Dr. Carson would continue to take an active role in helping to raise funds to build the Boys & Girls Club by making numerous appearances at the request of Hollis, who would often develop a special event around the neurosurgeon’s appearance.
The early stages of planning involved the Nanticoke Senior Center, whose existing Board of Directors saw an opportunity to promote an intergenerational concept with the community seniors sharing a new Center with the youth organization.
Though cramped for space, in the spirit of partnership, the Nanticoke Senior Center opened its doors on Arch Street and this became the first home of the Western Sussex B&G Club. The partnership was viewed as a “win” as the senior center had outgrown its longtime location on Arch Street and looked to build a new facility. By working in tandem with Boys & Girls Clubs, there would be a new youth center and also a new, more spacious facility for area seniors.
The plan was that seniors would utilize a portion of the building for office space and activities centers, but also have access to the other amenities, including a games room and gymnasium in the morning and early afternoon hours when young people were in school.
Once a formal capital campaign was organized, Hollis and the rest of the W.S. B&G Club Board set out to work with Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware representatives to develop a plan for raising the funds needed to build a facility to meet the needs of the community youth and seniors.
The first business was addressing the $3.5 million that would need to be raised to meet the high standards of safety and energy efficiency necessary in building the youth center. A capital campaign was organized with the late John Burton of the Burton Transportation serving as the chairman.
Hollis said it was important that the board secure funds of at least one-third of the total project cost ($1 million) before taking the campaign drive to the general public. The first show of support came as Soroptimist International of Seaford stepped up and made a pledge to contribute $30,000 to the project over a three-year period.
Hollis knew it would be necessary to first show local financial support which would instill confidence in the large corporate and private foundation donors, and show evidence that there was support from the communities that the facility was to serve.
Fortunately, with the help of then CEO of Delmarva Power Howard Cosgrove, the capital campaign committee was introduced to the leadership of one of the nation’s foremost philanthropic organizations, the Longwood Foundation. That connection resulted in a $1.2 million contribution to the project. The campaign was now in full swing.
Another major boost to the fundraising efforts came as then state senators Thurman Adams of Bridgeville and Robert Venables of Laurel and Rep. Ben Ewing of Bridgeville championed the Boys & Girls Club mission at Legislative Hall. Adams, Venables and Ewing worked together to promote the project among their colleagues, and were able to secure $1 million in Grant-In-Aid funding.
Hollis and Burton worked with the campaign committee to establish local fundraisers that would help to continue funding the project. At the same time, these initiatives provided evidence of local support that helped convince major state and national foundations and other grantors to view the project as a valuable investment in improving the quality of life in the western Sussex communities.
As Hollis had suggested the annual Festival for Youth, which included a youth forum and sponsored by Soroptimist International of Seaford, and a special “Winter Carnival,” became a major event for the local fundraising efforts. Having Dr. Carson as a supporter of the event, enabled Hollis to recruit a host of celebrities who helped make the event a huge draw.
Over the years, in addition to Carson, celebrities including sports figures Davey Johnson, second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles; Curtis Pride, who was significantly deaf and played for 13 years in major league baseball including with the Montreal Expos, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox; Bobby Richardson, teammate of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris on the New York Yankees team; Larry Johnson (Magic Johnson’s brother); Dave Dravecky, pitcher for the San Francisco Giants who lost his arm due to cancer and gave his keynote address while tying a neck tie; 36-year veteran of the Baltimore Orioles and father of Cal Ripken, Jr. and Billy Ripken, Cal Ripken, Sr., who was accompanied by his wife, Violet (Vi); and Olympic Gold Medalist Dionna Harris.
High school coaches Herm Boone and Bill Yoast, who were featured in the Disney movie starring Denzel Washington and Will Patton, “Remember the Titans” also visited the Festival for Youth and were keynote speakers for a special “Steak & Burger” fundraiser. In following years Coach Yoast would make visits to various Boys & Girls Club sites, bringing actual Titan team members who were portrayed in the movie to share motivational messages with the young people.
Hollis also enlisted the support of Comcast Vice President, Greater Baltimore, Brian Lynch, who helped connect him with a number of country music artists who performed for special concerts that promoted and raised money to support operations after the club was built.
Hollis formed friendships with some of the artists and visited Nashville numerous times to recruit talent for the annual “Country Music Festival” for Boys & Girls Clubs. This led to some artists like the group “Ricochet,” who had numerous hits including “Daddy’s Money,” to make the trip to Delaware. Other artists Hollis was able to bring to the Festivals, were the Charlie Daniels Band, Martina McBride, Montgomery-Gentry, The Lynns (Loretta Lynn’s daughters), Matt King, The Kinley’s, Doug Supernaw, and Brian White.
When the Boys & Girls Club opened its doors in January 1998, Hollis recounted the immense respect and appreciation he had for the community-based efforts that resulted in the building of the club. “These people have motivated me,” he said. “People have given of themselves without any self-interest. Everybody has shared in a vision of helping seniors and young people. It’s a beautiful small-town story of remarkable energy.”
On Jan. 26, the Western Sussex Boys & Girls Club will host an event at the Ross Station Event Center, 585 Market St. Extended, Seaford, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Virginia Avenue youth center. The event will pay homage to the evolution of the Boys & Girls Club in Seaford, from the conceptual start of the club through its current status and contribution to the youth and families in western Sussex County.
The event will also honor some of the individuals who were instrumental in the beginnings of the club. These include, John Hollis, first Board Chair; John Burton, first Capital Campaign Chair; Dave Crimmins, first Club Director; former Delaware Gov. Thomas Carper, first Honorary Capital Campaign Chair; and Joy Oliver, first Western Sussex B&G Club “Youth of the Year.”
For more information, contact www.bgclubs.org/ws25 or call 302-841-9639.