Mekos Denson has more than 250 reasons to support the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City. Four of them: Carol Yeomans, Devin Brown-Velez, Richard Harris and Dashima Deberry sat a bit nervously in the gym last week as they prepared to compete for the club's Youth of the Year award and the state competition that would follow.
Beside them sat volunteer mentors, who listened as the four talked about the difference the club has made in their lives.
Deberry, 16, said she started coming at age 6 because her mother worked and needed after-school care.
"But now it is my choice to be here," she said. She comes six days per week, helping younger children with their homework and serving meals. She wants a career working with children.
Harris, 17, started coming when he was eight, after the grandmother who had cared for him since he was 2 years old died.
"She was my everything," he said. "My grandpa brought me here, and I was afraid. But by the time he left, I was in the gym making friends. Here I felt safe. I felt like I belonged."
Providing a safe, nurturing environment for the more than 250 children who come to the two club sites each day is the primary mission of the club, executive director Mekos Denson said.
The Pennsylvania Avenue building has been a bit more crowded than usual. Hurricane Sandy destroyed the first floor of their second site on Sovereign Avenue. Denson said club officials hope to be ready to re-open in early March, but the site had about $400,000 in damages.
"It was heartbreaking to walk in there," he said. "We had just painted and put in new carpet over the summer."
The national club provided some funds, and the community, local casinos and businesses contributed. Golden Boy Promotions, Oscar De La Hoya and Caesars Atlantic City donated almost $45,000 from a fight in November.
But Denson said it has been a struggle to recover, and they are hoping for a big turnout at the annual Men R Cookin' fundraiser Thursday to generate extra revenue.
"The storm came at the end of the year, when most non-profits are just trying to trip over the finish line with their budgets," he said. "But people came out to help us."
About 60 of the 85 or so children who attended the Sovereign Avenue site are now bused over to Pennsylvania Avenue each day, which has turned out to be a learning experience for everyone, Denson said.
"Many of those children rarely leave their own neighborhood," he said. "But we want to be a consistent presence in their lives."
The center is open to children ages 5 to 18, from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Membership is $9 per year, which covers just a small portion of the annual budget of about $1 million, with corporation donations, grants and fundraising covering the rest. Dinner is served at the site, funded through a Department of Agriculture grant.
"Most of the kids ages 12 and under leave around 6 p.m. when parents get home," Denson said. "The older ones will often stay until we close."
Various groups within the club teach about making good decisions. A typical afternoon starts with a snack and homework, then at least an hour of active physical exercise. There will be an assembly with a message, then smaller group meetings for games, tutoring and even cooking classes. Most students spend about three hours per day at the club.
Volunteers from the community have been crucial both to the club and individual children. Retired Atlantic City High School guidance counselor Michael Everett runs the Champions of Youth program, which partners high school freshmen with volunteer mentors to help guide them through high school and into college and careers.
Yeomans, 18, was recommended for the program and admits her grades weren't all they could be when she joined. Now the high school senior is also taking classes at Atlantic Cape Community College's Atlantic City campus and applying to college where she plans to major in journalism.
"I love to write," she said. "I'm excited to do papers for school. But when I first joined (Champions of Youth), I wasn't even thinking about going to college."
Local attorney Jeff Wilson, a long-time volunteer but first-time mentor, said it's changed him as well.
"It's been an amazing experience," he said. "These are such great kids. I can see the growth in them since I've been here. I'd encourage everyone to get involved."
"I'm just giving back to the community," said volunteer mentor William Burch, a newcomer to the group.
Ashley Hughes, resource development director, said students at the club exemplify what young people are - and can be - in 2013.
"They are here doing something many of their peers are not doing," she said of the four Youth of the Year nominees. "They are doing something that might not be seen as cool. But this has been a home to them. We are co-parents."
Contact Diane D'Amico:
The 12th Annual Men R Cookin' Event
From 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the Pool at Harrah's Resort in Atlantic City. Tickets are $60 and $75. For tickets call the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City at 609-347-2697 or visit acbgc.org