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Boys and Girls Club opens second facility in Lake County

New beginning

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POLSON – When kids flew off the first bus parked in front of Polson’s brand new Boys and Girls Club on Monday, they opened doors to “a dream come true,” says executive director Aric Cooksley. 

“For me personally, the biggest thing is that we, as adults within this community, have shown the kids of this community how valuable they are.”

The impressive 23,000-square-foot facility, located across from Polson Middle School on the corner of 17th Ave. and 8th Ave. W., is a kid-friendly haven. Inside, youngsters will find flexible classrooms and computer labs, a dedicated teen center with its own kitchenette and outdoor space, an art room with an expansive view across Flathead Lake, a music room that will eventually offer a recording studio and a full-size gymnasium. A spacious, fully equipped kitchen is poised to supply snacks and meals in the adjacent cafeteria. 

That’s an investment of $8.5 million in a county of around 30,000 people. 

“One of the biggest wows, miracles, whatever term you want to use, is that in a community this size we raised $8.5 million,” says Cooksley.

In an interview last Friday, Cooksley took time out from the final push to ready the clubhouse to discuss its evolution from vision to reality. 

“If you had looked at us six years ago and said in six years, you will have two facilities, almost two gymnasiums, and you will be in a better position financially than you have ever been before, I probably would have said, ‘sure we can do that, let’s go, why not?’” 

Cooksley was new to the organization in 2014 and brought to it an eclectic background. He had owned a trucking company in North Dakota, served as Ronan High School’s Gear Up coordinator, was a sales representative for UPS, taught English in Thailand for a year and was an adjunct teacher at Walla Walla University and the local community college. His wife’s roots in the Mission Valley kept bringing the family back. 

An anonymous donor gave the club $1 million to purchase the Total Home furniture store in November 2017. A year later, the completely renovated 19,000-square-foot facility opened its doors. 

“Once we got Ronan done we were able to show people what we could do. It made it possible to raise enough money to do this,” he adds, gesturing around the Polson club.

St. Joseph Medical Center donated a 99-year lease for the property. Funding sources have ranged from a slew of individual donations and pledges, large and small, to foundations, tribal government and strategic partnerships at the state and federal level. 

“I think the coming of age of an organization is having the right pieces in place from a board perspective, from a leadership perspective, from a lot of other perspectives to be able to get to where we needed to go,” he said. 

The Boys and Girls Club of the Flathead Reservation and Lake County was established 22 years ago and began serving kids in Ronan from the old Ford dealership. Eventually, the club expanded its services to Polson, where it was initially housed in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, then at Cherry Valley Elementary, and most recently at New Life Christian Center. 

The club’s mission is threefold: to encourage academic success; develop character and leadership; and to foster healthy lifestyles, ranging from good nutrition to physical, social, emotional and mental health. 

“I’m convinced none of those things happen without people deciding to invest and care about kids as people,” says Cooksley. “We make it a priority that kids walk away not being able to question that.”

That mission manifests in the afterschool schedule. Kids ages 6-18 arrive around 3 p.m. and get a snack first thing, followed by an opportunity to decompress and structured time to complete their homework. 

Educational activities are on tap next, followed by an evening meal. The day wraps up with two 45-minute activity blocks that might include playing basketball or volleyball, a STEM activity, beading, art, music and more. 

Volunteers are an important part of the program, too, and they often show up for an hour once a week to share their expertise in such areas as fly-tying, crocheting or baking bread. Volunteers also read stories to the younger crowd. 

Salish Kootenai College students work closely with the Boys and Girls Club through an internship program that benefits both youngsters and college students. “Being able to teach and communicate with people about your expertise is a huge asset coming out of school,” says Cooksley. 

To that end, SKC students have launched clubs that explore everything from entrepreneurship, hydrology and Native studies to graphic design and computer science. “From a post-secondary education standpoint, we look at these clubs as an opportunity to be a learning lab that enriches the community around us through the kids of the community,” he said.

Cooksley also credits the local tribal government as an important partner in the club’s expansion efforts, having made direct donations and teamed up on grants and other funding opportunities. 

“As we’ve continued to grow and have more impact, we’re also seeing a lot more collaborative opportunities with school districts,” he says.

The dazzling new facility continues to catch the eye of other funders. “A lot of organizations want to have an impact on families and kids, and we have more-and-more become an organization they seek out to partner with,” Cooksley said. The COVID pandemic has impacted the club’s reach and attendance. Before the shutdown last spring, the Ronan club was serving up to 120 students daily and anticipating up to 150 students a day for the summer program. Safety remains a priority. The club continues to work closely with the health department and its own safety committee “to make sure we’re doing everything we can to prevent any spread or outbreak,” Cooksley says. 

Cooklsey pointed to the high rates of suicide and abuse on the reservation and statewide when he said: “I would tie that back to one common denominator – we as human beings make terrible decisions when we don’t have hope. Whatever your paradigm is, I think we can all agree that hope is something everyone needs and no one functions well without. I’d like to think we help provide hope for a lot of kids.”

 

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