UNION COUNTY, NJ — Lisa Sepetjian’s brightly-colored blazer cannot compete with her dazzling smile as she walks briskly down the hall of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Union County, located in Union.
Close by in the large gymnasium you can hear the sounds of a basketball game in progress. Darting back and forth across the polished floor, a group of boys dribble a ball, whistling and calling to each other across the vast space. One of them catches the ball, swivels, and effortlessly tosses it into the faraway basket. Off in another corner, a small group of girls is playing their own game of basketball. A vivid mural adorns one of the walls.
Sepetjian, who is the director of development and Marketing for all Union County clubs — including locations in Union, Hillside, Elizabeth, Plainfield, and Roselle — continues down the hall, stops, and points to the framed artwork lining the walls. “These are done by our kids,” she says proudly.
The club is the largest youth service agency in the world and just celebrated its 60th anniversary. According to CEO Russell Triolo, the club has had an impact on more than 100,000 kids. “That’s a lot of lives to impact,” says Triolo.
It is apparent as Triolo speaks that the work he does is close to his heart. “The parents know as well as the kids that they are safe and that we really care about them,” says Triolo, who has served the club for 37 years. “They’re here because they want to be, not because they have to be.”
The 45,000 square-foot Union Club facility boasts a computer lab stocked with state-of-the-art computers, a library where teens can read and do their homework, and recreation areas.
According to Sepetjian, the club — which serves children ages 5 to 18 — serves a very specific purpose. “We’re the best chance that many of these kids have for a future,” she says. “They receive special attention and we make sure that they get the best services we can provide.”
Sepetjian says that 65 percent of their kids receive free or reduced school lunches, with many from economically disadvantaged and single-parent homes.
Triolo says that 100 percent of the club’s high school seniors have graduated from high school on time and have gone on to college. He attributes it to the very essential role that his club plays. “We teach them how to be good, solid adults,” said Triolo. “We bring in successful people to talk to our kids, to show them that they have an opportunity to do the same. We bring in the business community and it shows them that yes — you can do this, you can be that. We provide hope to our kids. In school they just can’t get the attention they need.”
Triolo’s understanding of just how vital this is hits close to home. “Growing up, I went to the club every day,” he says. “I felt safe. I looked up to the counselors as role models. The kids come here for the same reason I came here.”
The club, which is a private, nonprofit organization with a volunteer board of directors, raises all of their funds through grants, special events, individual giving, and corporate support. It is run by full-time and part-time staff members, as well as more than 200 volunteer tutors, coaches, guest speakers, and others. “The caring from the staff is a huge thing that keeps the kids here,” says Sepetjian. “The connection is really powerful. I’m amazed at the transformation once the kids are here for a while. You’d be surprised at the turnaround.”
Programs at the club include education and career programming, health and life skills initiatives, arts and technology programs, character and teen leadership programming, an aquatics department, athletics league, as well as a Summer Fun Club.
Triolo says that the agency makes sure that the best services are available. “We serve a lot of kids that can’t afford high-end services, but we provide high-end services.”
About 150 children and teens walk through the doors of the Union club on any given day, says Triolo. “The time kids are out of school — between 3 and 6 o’clock — is the most vulnerable time for them,” he said. “Kids want to know that they’ll be safe. We have what we call, ‘Senses.’ A sense of belonging, of usefulness, of being a part of something good.
Kids know it’s a privilege to be here. Our kids deserve the best. They have value. They’re not just castoffs. We’re going to go beyond for the kids. We have a stake in their success. Otherwise, what are we doing here?”
For more information about the Boys and Girls Clubs of Union County visit www.bgcuc.org.