Better as one

Better as one


By Sara Bongiorni
A pandemic shakeup has restructured the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Baton Rouge into a regional organization focused on serving more children, and with new services that include mental-health counseling for kids coping with loss and upheaval.

There is a new name for what is essentially a new organization. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Louisiana was formed by the April 2021 merger of the Baton Rouge club and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeast Louisiana.

The unified organization is providing afterschool and summer programs at Baton Rouge sites that include Buchanan, Magnolia Woods and Winbourne elementary schools, as well as sites in Slidell and Gretna previously run by the Southeast organization.

Pat Van Burkleo | Tim Mueller photo
Pat Van Burkleo | Tim Mueller photo

It will also expand into New Orleans. Programs that opened in June at two New Orleans recreation centers were made possible by the merger and show the goal of doing more for more children in need.

“We are looking to have a deeper impact,” said Pat R. Van Burkleo, president and CEO of the merged organization and the former longtime head of the Baton Rouge club.

The merger includes new governance. A new board combines members of the previous boards with people who had no ties to either one. Upstart parish councils are emphasizing local fundraising and strategy. Donors can support local clubs and the expanded programming made possible by the larger organization.

Notably, the larger organization continues its ambition to make a bigger impact in Baton Rouge. The blueprint includes building a 32,000-square-foot Boys & Girls Club at BREC’s Howell Park, the first freestanding site in Baton Rouge.

The center within the Winbourne Avenue park would provide a gathering place for all local clubs and support long-term art projects, robotics and other activities that can be difficult to implement using empty classroom space. It would be a homecoming of sorts, too. The first Boys & Girls Club in Baton Rouge opened in an old fire station on Winbourne Avenue in 1981.

The Baton Rouge club had raised about $3 million of $6 million for the new facility when the pandemic derailed the effort. The merged organization in the coming months is likely to restart the campaign, but there is no set timeline, Van Burkleo said.

Interruption and innovation describe what the pandemic year looked like for the Baton Rouge organization. A first scramble was creating taped programming for children after schools closed in spring 2020. The organization also turned on a live, interactive format that proved very effective.

Van Burkleo was skeptical initially when the Atlanta-based Boys & Girls Club of America posed the idea of a merger with the Southeast organization last year.

The notion made sense in a lot of ways. The Southeast organization had been operating with a skeleton crew. COVID had accelerated a series of leadership changes. Van Burkleo appreciated economies of scale in putting donor support to optimal use. Zoom meetings clarified the idea of working remotely and doing more with less.

But he felt a merger made sense only if the nonprofit could do things differently and do more for kids, which is what he told the Baton Rouge and Southeast boards. They agreed, approved the idea and jumped into months of merger planning with Van Burkleo and the national organization.

The process included identifying new priorities. Chief among them was re-establishing a footprint in New Orleans, whose clubs had closed before the pandemic. Offering more programs for teens, including middle-school children, was another priority. The idea of providing children with access to licensed, professional counselors emerged out of discussions of the pandemic’s impact on the families the organization serves.

“Our kids have had a lot of loss, and we need to be nimble enough to respond to that,” Van Burkleo said. “We serve a population that may not have access to those services.”

The nonprofit has raised $3 million of $6 million for a Boys & Girls Club at Howell Park
The nonprofit has raised $3 million of $6 million for a Boys & Girls Club at Howell Park

Positioning the organization to raise funds to provide expanded services was also essential. Planning included national searches for a chief development officer and chief operating officer.

A $750,000 campaign for programming and changes tied to the merger raised $650,000 by early summer.

The organization is reaching more kids in more ways. A new program for teens opened at Alaska Street Park in Baton Rouge this summer. The new program in New Orleans delivers full-day enrichment, breakfast, lunch and a safe place to play to 130 kindergarten to fifth-grade students. A pilot project in individual and group mental-health counseling by licensed, professional counselors will be offered at Baton Rouge clubs this fall.

Afterschool help with homework and activities to build character and good health will endure, but the lessons of the pandemic have reshaped how Boys & Girls Club reaches poor children in south Louisiana.

“COVID taught us to look more holistically at helping kids,” Van Burkleo said. “The concept of the merger was to do things differently.”

Category: >>


Stay connected with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. Get breaking announcements, learn about partnership opportunities, and see what’s happening in our community now.

Newsletter Sign Up

"*" indicates required fields