Boys & Girls Club: a youth development program that gives back to the community
In June 2016, One World Play Project and our Citizens FC partner Tea Collection visited the Boys & Girls Club in Oakland, California, to celebrate the donation of One World Futbols and Tea Collection jerseys and to play with the kids. Throughout the afternoon, we enjoyed friendly games of soccer, basketball, bumper pool and jumbo Connect Four. Some of us even embraced our creative sides in the art room.
Our play day showed us that, no matter where we’re from, how old we are or whether we’re athletic, creative or both, play brings us together.
On that day, our team also had the great pleasure of talking with Donte Rodgers, director of education at the Boys & Girls Club. Donte, now 28 years old, joined the Boys & Girls Club as a member when he was 12. He was in a transitional stage in his life at that time, and through the youth development program, he came into his own at the Boys & Girls Club. He found friends and mentors there that continue to play a positive role in his life today.
Donte is a warm, caring individual; he’s soft-spoken. When you speak with him and see him play with the Boys & Girls Club youth, it’s easy to see he’s a natural fit for working with kids, for mentoring them the same way he was mentored.
We each possess unique, remarkable stories, and Donte is no different. In talking with him, it didn’t take long to realize he’s a dreamer, incredibly driven and has a large heart for giving back to those in his community.
Read on to learn about Donte’s childhood in Oakland, how he came to find the Boys & Girls Club and how he now gives back to the community he grew up in.
Growing up and playing in a tight-knit community
Donte Rodgers was born and raised in Oakland, California. He and his mom lived in a tight-knit community in west Oakland, where “everybody knew everybody.” He says his neighbors felt like family, and he often spent time playing basketball, baseball and riding bikes with his neighborhood friends.
While the early years of Donte’s life were marked with afternoons and evenings of carefree play—everything childhood should be—he was forced to grow up quickly when his mom died due to an HIV-related illness in November 1995. Donte was 8 years old.
Adjusting to life with extended family, growing up fast
After his mom died, Donte went to live with an aunt and cousin in Oakland. In his new home, he felt his childhood slipping away.
His aunt was often under the influence of alcohol; his cousin was addicted to drugs. Under the influence, his aunt would take her troubles out on Donte. If he were watching cartoons, she’d yell at him and turn off the TV. Donte, who shared a room with his cousin, recalls seeing him light a crackpipe many nights, and on one occasion, Donte says his cousin took and sold Donte’s bike to feed his drug habit.
“Being able to be a kid was no longer an opportunity for me,” Donte says. “I was chasing the ability to be a kid; I’d become an adult faster than I wanted.”
Not only that. Donte says his dreams and hopes for the future, his future, felt crippled. It was stifling. “How can you dream in this environment?” he’d ask himself.
Escaping to school, seeking help from a social worker
School was an escape in more ways than one for Donte. It offered an escape from the challenges of his home life; it was a place to have fun; and eventually, it offered a clean break from his harmful family situation altogether.
When he was 11 years old, Donte met a social worker at school who helped relocate him to another cousin’s home. The situation with that cousin and her husband was still not ideal for Donte, and within a year, the social worker helped place Donte in Elaine’s Group Home for Boys in Oakland.
Finding home, building family at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oakland
Elaine’s Group Home for Boys was just getting its feet on the ground when Donte arrived. He quickly made friends there but felt as though he was in a transitional stage at the group home, always wondering what would come next. It was during this time, though, that he found and became part of a community that would shape the trajectory of his life: the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oakland.
The Boys & Girls Club was just around the corner from the group home, and when Donte was 12 years old, he and the other boys from Elaine’s started participating in programs there.
For Donte, that was the point at which everything changed. At the Boys & Girls Club, life started to click for him as he fell into a family of friends and mentors.
“Before joining the Boys & Girls Club, I never felt like I had the opportunity to be a kid,” Donte says. “Being introduced to the Boys & Girls Club was a breath of fresh air for me. I didn’t have to worry about the enormity of what I was going through.”
Foster family turned family
During this time, Donte also moved out of Elaine’s Group Home for Boys and in with a foster family in Oakland. Since both father and mother were working, the Boys & Girls Club was ideal for Donte, and he continued to participate in programs there. Eventually, Donte’s foster family adopted him.
Growing from mentee to mentor through the youth development program
Now 16 years later, Donte is still part of the Boys & Girls Club family. His position within that family and the youth development program has evolved over the years as he’s grown from a participant to a staff member.
When he was in high school, Donte joined the Boys & Girls Club staff as a junior staff leader, and as a sophomore in college, he became the director of education. In his role, he provides homework assistance, oversees the tutoring program and helps Boys & Girls Club members with college prep.
Donte is paying it forward and mentoring youth the same way he was mentored as a young member there. From mentee to mentor, his life with the Boys & Girls Club has truly come full circle—and he’s well aware of the impact the Boys & Girls Club and his mentors have had on his life.
“The Boys & Girls Club has been a big part of my personal journey,” he says. “There was a guy here named Sticker who passed away a few years back. He pretty much learned my story and pushed me to be part of all the leadership programs. He always held me to a high standard to help pull out my full potential.”
As director of education, Donte’s sole focus is giving back to the community and the youth. He wants to share what the Boys & Girls Club means to him and the opportunities it’s given him with others. He wants other youth to be empowered to rise above life’s challenges in the same way he was able to do so.
Outside the Boys & Girls Club, he’s also working as a residential treatment counselor, and his ultimate goal is to be a juvenile probation officer.
“I want to change the minds of those who don’t see a future for themselves,” he says. “I’m working with children that are walking the same path I did growing up, and I’m working to let them know I walked their same path. I want to them to see the potential in their lives, the potential in their dreams.”
The role of play in the youth development program
Throughout his 16 years with the Boys & Girls Club, in addition to his mentors and friends, play has been a constant for Donte. Basketball has always been his favorite game; he loved playing as a child and loves to play with the kids today.
Both Donte and Boys & Girls Club Ossian E. Carr Branch Director Fred Frazier say play is vital to the programs of the Boys & Girls Club.
Fred says play serves as a carrot. It entices kids to come to the Boys & Girls Club and also exposes them to and teaches them about things they really need: friends, a healthy lifestyle and habits, education and so much more. There are many benefits to play, but more than anything, Fred says it’s enriching, and fun, for the youth.
Donte adds, “When you come and play, it’s taking a step from the normalcy of having to go to school. It’s structured here, but it’s a healthy environment for the kids to have fun and laugh together.”
Giving back to the community through play
In June 2016, One World Play Project and Tea Collection donated One World Futbols and Tea Collection jerseys to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oakland. The donated items will be used by more than 1,100 youth throughout programs during the school year as well as the summer.
Fred says standard soccer balls, which sometimes last a matter of minutes before popping, are something the Boys & Girls Club replaces annually. After a couple months, he says the One World Futbols have a lot of wear and tear—and continue to play. The Tea Collection jerseys are used by the children for general recreation and will also be used in the leagues in which the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oakland compete.
Donte explained that the balls and jerseys are incredibly important for the Boys & Girls Club as resources for continuing programming and also as a symbol of community support, especially for the youth.
“It’s very important to have people show support of the Boys & Girls Club,” he says, “to let the youth know there are people outside the core staff here that have an interest in their future as well. You know the old saying is ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ We’re just one entity. With joint ventures, it makes a greater force to helping the youth become positive contributors to society.”
To support play for children at organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs of Oakland, you can buy and give One World Futbols today.