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    Categories: Serving Communities

Former Boys & Girls Club member now inspires others

Lowe’s awarded a $50,000 grant to the Valentine Club to renovate its teen center as part of Renovation Across the Nation, a nationwide Club revitalization initiative launched by Lowe’s. Although the Club on Chicago’s South Side had a solid teen membership base, it hoped the upgrades would help increase its numbers and enable the Club to expand teen programs and services.

Lowe’s volunteers installed new flooring, window treatments, furniture and lighting fixtures, and painted the room. Mikie Kotrba, a longtime member and now an instructor at the Valentine Club, shares a little of her history at the Club and what the renovations mean to her and the teen members.

I first started coming to the Valentine Club when I was 5 years old. I came to be part of the day care program where my mom worked. My earliest memories of the Club are receiving hot, home-cooked meals every day, playing with the other kids and taking care of the two pet rabbits. It really was like a second home to me.

When I was in middle school, my dad got sick, and I wasn’t able to go as often. After he passed, I went through a really rough time. I was upset about a lot of things and started getting into fights, hanging out with the wrong crowd and not taking school seriously anymore. For a little more than a year, I didn’t come to the Club, and it was a really bad time in my life.

At a young age, I learned how to swim at the Club from Ms. Theresa, one of the staff members there, and really enjoyed it. Once I entered high school, I decided to pick that sport up again and joined the freshman swim team. As it turned out, not only did the team practice at the Valentine Club pool, but Ms. Theresa was also my swim team coach. Because of that, I was going back to the Club multiple times a week, and then kept going back even when I didn’t have practice. I realized I was having fun at the Club, and it was better than the bad stuff I had been doing. The Club really saved me from going down the wrong path and helped me get back on track.

I’m glad that after I graduated from high school, I was able to work at the Valentine Club as the education instructor. The Club really is my second family, and I like working with little kids – or the cadets, as we call them. I like helping them with their homework, learning new activities and watching them grow. When I see a teenage Club member having a hard time, I tell them what the staff used to tell me – that they can talk to me about anything because I care what’s going on with them.

“When I see a teenage Club member having a hard time, I tell them what the staff used to tell me – that they can talk to me about anything because I care what’s going on with them.”
—Mikie Kotrba, Valentine Club instructor and former member

After the renovations funded by Lowe’s were complete, our entire Club staff was surprised by how some of the simplest things, like a big dining room table, have had a big impact. The table can seat up to 20 teens, and it’s amazing how they are drawn to it. They’re always sitting around it hanging out, doing their homework or playing games. From 6:30 to 8 p.m., during “after hours,” it’s teens only. And I’ve noticed that because they have a dedicated space, more teens are staying after hours to complete their homework. There’s also a karaoke machine and sound system in the teen room, and the teens have karaoke sing-offs. It’s great to see that teens who were shy and didn’t talk much before, have really come out of their shells and made new friends.

In the first two weeks that we had the new teen center open, 10 new teens joined the Club. We think that as the word spreads about the renovated space, the teen membership will keep growing. When I was a teen attending the Club, there were only about 10 of us there, so it’s exciting to see that at least 26 teens are attending each day now! And the younger kids are all excited to become teens so they can use the center. I hope the teen center helps motivate them to come back and if they run into a rough time like I did, they will choose the Club, the teen center, their Club friends and the staff over bad alternatives.

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“In the first two weeks that we had the new teen center open, 10 new teens joined the Club. We think that as the word spreads about the renovated space, the teen membership will keep growing.”
—Mikie Kotrba, Valentine Club instructor and former member

We wouldn’t have been able to do this renovation on our own, and it’s really helped the Club make a difference in the lives of our members.