A Safe, Inclusive Space for Youth to Grow and Catapult Learning

Interactive walls. A soundproof recording studio. Art therapists. A theatrical stage. A mindful moment room. And even a fulltime chef.

It’s easy to see this isn’t your grandparents’ Boys & Girls Club.

The much anticipated, state-of-the-art facility officially opens next month just north of Sun Prairie’s downtown. A safe haven for preschoolers to teens, the new Club will also tackle the lack of affordable after-school child care crisis by opening a licensed day care ꟷ a historic-making move by a Boys & Girls Club anywhere across the country, according to Michael Johnson, the president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Dane County (BGCDC).

Johnson said it is everything he imagined and more from the days he roamed the halls of his childhood Boys & Girls Club in West Chicago. A place where who you are, where you’re from or the circumstances that surround you don’t determine opportunities afforded to you.

That’s the whole ideal.

“I want this to be like a country club for kids,” Johnson beamed during a tour of the 26,000-square-foot site he gave UMOJA weeks before construction was nearing completion. “I want this Boys & Girls Club to be uniquely suited for our mission of building great futures, while providing a space that’s brimming with opportunity.”

One of a Kind

The new location is named The McKenzie Family Boys & Girls Club in recognition of John and Jo Ellen McKenzie, local apartment realtors who gave $1 million donation towards the $3 million project. The gift is the largest one-time individual gift ever given to BGCDC kids for a capital campaign.

“This is the first Boys & Girls Club named after a family,” Johnson said.

A grand opening ceremony will take place from 10 a.m. to noon on Jan. 15. Located at 232 Windsor St., the property is the former Peace Lutheran Church. Membership is $10 a year.

The wide smile on Johnson as he walks room-to-room around the Club is contagious. The Zen-like colored walls create a cheerful and warm environment conducive to influencing literacy development and growth in self-esteem.

“Because of our partnership with Google, who gave us a $50,000 grant, this will be our technology center … we’ll be building a digital platform so kids can access our services virtually,” Johnson beamed.

J.H. Findorff & Son Inc. were the principle constructor of the three-level facility. The youngest Club members will be in the lower level and include a Starbuck-style cafeteria, classrooms and mural painted walls.  Art covered walls are on display as soon as visitors enter the first floor, which is designated for the afterschool programs and administrative offices. The top floor has a music studio and audio booth for creative jam sessions. All is designed to enable young people to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.

Johnson paid attention to detail, right down to the furniture he selected. They’re durable and most come with lifetime warrantees. 

“Our kids don’t deserve secondhand broke,” Johnson said.

Since the facility had been abandoned before the BGCDC acquired it in January 2019, there was a dire need to upgrade the plumbing and kitchen ventilation systems. Not to mention the need for pest control to gut and remove a bats’ nest.

Ensuring Child Safety is Fundamental

This facility is the 11th to open for BGCDC. The one prior was Allied Family Center, located at 4619 Jenewein Rd. in Madison. That was 10 years ago. Sun Prairie is a prime area for the Club because the community is one of the fastest growing cities in Wisconsin. 

The most influential time in a child’s life is between 3 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. every day after school. Hundreds of young people throughout the community lack adult supervision and meaningful, positive things to do between the time they leave school and the time their parents come home. Boys & Girls Clubs are open during most of these critical hours, offering a fun and productive environment to enjoy after school and all day during summer and school holidays.

 “We will be starting off serving 300 kids a day,” Johnson said. “I think this facility over the next 10 years will serve two to three thousand kids. It’s our largest investment to date.”

For every dollar invested in the community, the BGCDC brings $9.60 in future earnings, Johnson added.

Building a Healthier Generation

Children and teens who regularly attend a Boys & Girls Club do better than their peers. Johnson knows this firsthand. From age 6 through high school, he was a member in Chicago. The impact of the experience was made evident when asked to be a commencement speaker for grade schoolers.

“There were sixth grade graduating pictures on the wall dating back to 1960,” Johnson recalled. “My graduating class was there, too, and out of the 23 young men I had graduated with, only four of us are still alive.

“The four of us realized what we had in common. We all came from single-parent households. We all had jobs early on. We all had mentors. And, we all went to Boys & Girls Clubs. I knew right then and there I wanted to run my own Boys & Girls Club,” he added.

When Johnson’s mother passed away when he was just 23 years old, no one in the family had the money to give her a proper burial. A vice president of his local Boys & Girls Club raised $4,000 to help Johnson’s family. 

“I know the reason I am alive today, and the reason my mother got the burial she deserved, is because of the Boys & Girls Club,” Johnson said.  Now that he’s head of the multimillion dollar nonprofit agency, Johnson said it’s his duty to pay it forward.

Be Their Hope

The McKenzie Family Boys & Girls Club is slated to open Feb. 1 and volunteers and additional funding is needed.  A majority of the members will be from communities of color, yet all in need of Club services are welcome. Once the new facility is operational, Johnson and his board will beginpaying off the debt. Once complete, expansion on the 2.69 acre site will include building a crosswalk to the adjacent property. Plans are to develop a skilled trade center designed to teach young minds how to become entrepreneurs. Statistically, 27% of working-age adults have college degrees. This program is slated for the others wanting gainful employment.

 “This investment has been truly worth it,” Johnson said. “I believe there in no other nonprofit in the state that is doing preschool through college completion programs, tracking it and validating it with third-party assessments.”