The Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach celebrates 60 years of helping young people reach their fullest potential.
By Peter A. Balaskas | Photos by Jody Tiongco
Nestled deep in the heart of Laguna Canyon, the main branch of the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach seems to sit in the sun’s spotlight, beckoning wayward drivers to visit as they coast through the canyon. Although seemingly understated, the organization’s flagship location is first-rate; next door, at the Sawdust Art Festival grounds, aromas of freshly cut wood slowly drift from the cluster of craft shops that have sold their wares to locals and out-of-towners alike for more than 50 years. Farther south is the Festival of Arts’ home base and the Laguna Playhouse. And then there’s the coast, where kids of all ages can visit museums and local galleries, or explore the seaside playground that is Main Beach.
As the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach approaches its 60th anniversary as a community institution, the nonprofit also celebrates its legacy as a beacon for young boys and girls seeking to meet new friends, learn new skills and, most importantly, discover and nurture their goals and dreams—proof positive that The Chronicle of Philanthropy was indeed accurate when it ranked the nationwide network of clubs No. 1 among youth organizations for the 20th consecutive year.
Club Member to President
Since its creation in 1954, the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach has consistently maintained and reinforced its mission of encouraging young people to grow into caring and responsible adults. Bill Wood, president of the board, knows very well the club’s dedication and how it has developed over the years; he became a member during the late 1950s, when he was just 14 years old. During that time, the club was housed in a smaller facility located on Main Beach and was simply called the Boys Club, approximately 30 years before it expanded to join the national stable of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Bill recalls the original location’s athletic amenities, which included outdoor basketball courts, a game room with table tennis and billiards, and a small workout gym.
“A lot of my peers and I [would show up] after school and in the evenings at that time … and it was a comfortable [and safe] place to be,” he says. “But it was a place to share with each other, have fun and [be] under some guidance.”
Bill stresses that sports and games are just a small part of what the club offers. With the help of a committed staff, young people are also taught that in order to accomplish their goals, especially when it comes to professional aspirations, they have to first learn responsibility and accountability for their actions. Although Bill temporarily left the club as a teenager to work a string of summer jobs in the restaurant industry, he was drawn back to it as a part-time employee at the age of 19.
“I assumed over the years that Bruce Pierce, the executive director at the time, must have felt that I exhibited some behaviors that would be good to pass on to the kids,” Bill says. “Otherwise, he would have never hired me as a part-time worker originally and then on to full time.”
As he grew older, Bill became the program and athletic director at the club, designing all of its contests, games and tournaments. During that time he was encouraged by Bruce, his mentor, to seek tutors, improve his grades and pursue a college education. After getting his degree, Bill ascended to the position of president of the PacifiCare Foundation but still volunteered as a coach for the club’s myriad athletic tournaments. During the 1990s and 2000s he became a board member and eventually the committee’s vice president. He retired from PacifiCare in 2006, and was named president of the board in 2012.
“This growth spurt [of the club] started, and we were in a situation where no one was stepping up at that point,” he says. “And so Pam [Estes, the club’s current executive director] asked me … if I would become president of the board, and I felt I owed it to the club.”
Bill’s journey with the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach comes full circle for he and his family. All of his children are members, as well as his grandchildren. He fondly recounts how the club helped cultivate his maturity and personal journey to adulthood.
“I firmly believe that I would not have achieved a college education if it had not been for the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach,” he says. “It afforded me, who was the only African-American initially at Laguna Beach High School—by the time I was a senior there were still less than a dozen of us—an opportunity to achieve my dreams.”
Decades have passed since Bill began his tenure at the club—and much has changed in the interim. The main branch moved from its beachfront location to its present site off Laguna Canyon Road. In addition to an indoor gym and outdoor playground, the facility also features a computer lab, homework lounge, snack bar, game room, preschool/Kinder Buddy program room and a fully stocked art studio, where a colorful kaleidoscope of paintings, drawings and photographs created by the students covers the walls like an unending mosaic.
Along with the main branch, the club also operates the TLC branch, which overlooks Bluebird Park and specifically serves children ages 6 to 10. Elena Mendoza, the TLC branch’s director, feels that this is a perfect, natural setting for younger children.
“All of our programming is done in the park,” Elena says. “The only kids that are in the building are doing their homework because they need some quiet space. [But] we utilize the entire park.”
At the main branch, the club’s sports programs are complemented by a number of other diverse core programs that are offered to all young boys and girls. The Academic Success program includes courses in science, math, engineering and computer science. The Good Character & Citizenship program offers the Torch Club, which encourages participation, character and leadership skills. A Healthy Lifestyles section of the curriculum, meanwhile, teaches kids the importance of self-esteem and courage against peer pressure.
One of the most beneficial core programs at the main branch is the Creative Expression section, which includes photography, drawing, painting and even sculpture instruction. Elena says that she is consistently impressed with the high quality of art that the kids create.
“We have art shows two times a year,” she explains. “Our kids produce art and they submit it to our national organization. There [are] 4,000 clubs nationwide; we have won first place for several years.”
The club’s connection to the local arts community has been especially enhanced by its relationship with the Laguna Art Museum, which holds exhibitions of the children’s work in its Young Artists Society Gallery.
“We have on two separate occasions been able to display our kids’ art [there],” Elena adds. “Can you imagine what it must feel like as a child to bring your parent to an art opening and your piece is in a museum? It’s one of the highlights of my year.”
The children who attend the club share Elena’s enthusiasm. Eight-year-old Nicole loves the club, and has nothing but praise for the games and art programs that it offers.
“I like the art room and the playground, because … I have this fourth-grade friend that I barely ever get to see [at school],” Nicole says. “So when we have the playground together [here], we usually play tetherball or jump rope, and we really like to spend time with each other because we don’t get to spend time at school.”
However, as 7-year-old Mia points out, the club’s education program and staff members help teach children like herself how to focus and finish their assignments on their own before asking for help. “Patricia [Walker, the club’s director of education] really … helps us a lot,” she says. “She knows where we’re going … and sometimes she lets us do it by ourselves.”
In return, the Laguna Beach community has embraced the club with open arms, primarily because the organization has fostered strong connections with many principals and teachers at the Laguna Beach Unified School District, the police and fire departments, and even local animal control facilities.
“We have established a reputation of being an honorable, upfront, safe place for kids to be,” Bill says. “And we serve different groups in different ways.”
Influencing the Future
New tales of how children’s lives have been changed by the Boys & Girls Club seem to crop up with each passing day. One success story that Elena experienced began 10 years ago when she first started to work at the club. It involved a young boy named Ricky Delatorre who was being raised by a single mother. As a single parent herself, Elena claims that she saw this boy’s untapped potential. Through her encouragement and support, Ricky participated in many of the club’s programs, and was even named Education Room Member of the Year. When he was old enough, he eventually left the club.
But earlier in 2012, a man entered the club and approached Elena. It was Ricky Delatorre, all grown up.
“He tells me he’s in college now, and he is looking for a job that is meaningful to him because he wants to be who I was to him,” Elena says. “And he works here now, and he’s phenomenal. To be able to go home every night and just know that I made an impact—every day, I know that I’ve touched someone.”
Courtesy of the generosity of volunteers and donations from various foundations, corporations and individuals, the club continues to move toward its goals of expansion, service and positively affecting children like Ricky. At the moment the club is collaborating with St. Mary’s Episcopal Church to develop a teen center on the church’s property, and both parties are welcoming additional local groups to assist with furthering the cause. The club is also in the early stages of creating another TLC-style branch at Lang Park along Pacific Coast Highway, as well as assisting in forming a separate Boys & Girls Club in Lake Forest.
Regardless of challenges, the compassion and kindness that the Boys & Girls Club of Laguna Beach models will remain constants, thanks to the combined efforts of staff, volunteers and the local community.
“You should always find an organization that touches your heart,” Bill muses. “But it’s really special when you find an organization that touches your soul. And this organization touches my soul.” LBM