Heritage Magazine: Growing Strong Community Roots
June 27, 2023
SHSU Media Contact: Mikah Boyd
When you enter the Boys & Girls Club of Walker County, a metal tree sculpture with multiple branches and budding leaves greets visitors. For Michelle Spencer, chief executive officer of the organization, the tree represents the positive growth children experience there and the growth of a nonprofit organization now celebrating 20 years of serving the community.
Like trees, the Boys & Girls Club of Walker County has established deep roots in the community to thrive, including numerous partnerships with Sam Houston State University. Many of those meaningful connections are because of Spencer, who has spent 17 years as CEO, leading a mission to help area youth with a place to learn and grow while having fun.
A Forth Worth native and 1991 graduate of SHSU, Spencer didn’t anticipate building a career in Huntsville, but when a top job opening with the Boys & Girls Club led to a coincidental connection at a SHSU Alumni Association event, she realized fate was sending her a signal, and she jumped on the opportunity.
“When I started the job, it was just me, the only full-time employee with a few part-time people,” Spencer said. “We were in one elementary school providing an after-school program. We weren’t even open during the summer. How can you be a Boys & Girls Club if you’re not open when kids need you? I realized big changes were vital, and I couldn’t do it all myself.”
Looking for support, Spencer discovered SHSU’s Center for Community Engagement, where she was invited to join the center’s advisory board. Comprised of leaders from over 20 local organizations and companies, board members work with the center to identify areas of need and act as co-educators by hosting student interns and volunteers.
“I got involved because I was trying to figure out how I could grow my relationship with SHSU to benefit their students and also my organization,” Spencer said. “When you are getting a degree in a specialized field, you don’t always have the chance for real world experience. I wanted to offer a way for students to try out what they were learning.”
What started as a collaboration in SHSU’s Department of Kinesiology, where students directed fitness activities with children at the club, has now evolved into numerous partnerships across campus with the club. In fact, Spencer can recall her team working with at least 15 different SHSU departments in just the last 2 years, along with various student organizations.
One alliance resulted in the Huntsville Immersion Partnership, an after-school program connecting children at the Boys & Girls Club with tutors studying to be teachers. The initiative was established by SHSU professor Benita Brooks in the College of Education, who was the recipient of the 2022 David Payne Academic Community Engagement Award.
“Most of my students already knew the content, but needed help learning how to build relationships. Once I showed them how to do that, we took what we did in the classroom and applied it at the Boys & Girls Club,” Brooks said. “I knew the children there had gifts buried inside them and we needed to help them realize those gifts.”
For some Bearkat students, the opportunity to volunteer at the Boys & Girls Club allows them to share their interests and talents with others.
“When student volunteers plan to partner with us for an extended period, we try to connect with their passion, and it’s been fantastic,” Spencer said. “If you are passionate about art, we’re going to place you in the art department, for example. One previous student was really into a style of dance called stepping, and he developed a step team with some of our kids. They ended up traveling everywhere to perform, and the Boys & Girls Club of America asked us to bring them to San Antonio to perform at their conference.”
Spencer believes the connections created with the university have been mutually beneficial, giving SHSU students opportunities to grow their skills while providing area youth possibilities to grow through new experiences.
“We have been able to develop programs and activities that our kids might not have ever had a chance to be a part of or would even think that they would be interested in,” Spencer said. “The SHSU golf team is getting ready to start teaching golf here soon. Imagine how many of our kids have never been exposed to golf.”
Although student volunteers may not realize it, their presence and interactions at the club also foster opportunities for children to consider what their future could look like.
“It can be a game changer for our kids to meet these students. When they realize ‘you look just like me and you’re in college’ it changes the way they think. It’s creating a new mindset that says, ‘I’m deserving of this and I, too, can do this.’ That’s a beautiful and powerful experience,” Spencer said.
With great relationships comes great impact. Through Spencer’s hard work and strong community roots, the Boys & Girls Club of Walker County moved into a brand-new facility in Huntsville in 2019, allowing them to expand their services to more area children.
“Starting out, we had a $180,000 budget. Right now, our budget is $1.2 million, but that wouldn’t have been possible without our continuous partnership with Sam Houston State,” Spencer said.
To view the full Spring 2023 edition of Heritage Magazine, follow this link.
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