Jennifer Negron admits going to the Boys and Girls Club of Vineland four years ago as a pudgy girl, shy and with little self-esteem.

The family’s dreams for her future also weren’t encouraging, she said.

“My family didn’t expect much of me, as long as I just got my high school diploma,” Negron said, adding she met that goal by graduating from Vineland High School

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But Negron said her life began to change with the help of the Boys and Girls Club: She met friends and staff who made her realize how far she could go in life. She got help with homework. She stepped into a boxing ring, a sport that helped her lose 30 pounds.

Now 19, Negron is a club senior counselor. She was named a youth-of-the-year for all the New Jersey clubs. She’s attending Cumberland County College, with plans to transfer to another school, perhaps Rowan University, to become a bilingual education teacher. She’s the first member of the family to attend college.

“I learned to love and to love other people,” Negron said.

But it’s getting harder for the Boys and Girls Club in Vineland and Atlantic City to turn out success stories like Negron’s. The two clubs, located in poor urban areas, are struggling financially in tough economic times to maintain and grow their programs.

In Vineland, the club is pinning part of its hope on a donated bank building on Crystal Avenue that’s being converted to a teen center. The project, which will allow the club to stop renting space at a Vineland school, is being financed by a $35,000 Urban Enterprise Zone loan from the city. The club also operates out of the Carl Arthur Center on Plum Avenue.

Club Executive Director Chris Volker said plans at the Crystal Avenue site include everything from a community garden to programs that will help youths go on to college. When asked if the $35,000 will help cover the construction work and everything else he wants to offer the teenagers who use the building, Volker said, “Hopefully, but you never know what’s going to pop up.”

Meanwhile, the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City closed its Chelsea location, one of two club facilities, in February 2014 after experiencing tens of thousands of dollars of debt. The club in January announced plans to reopen the building, but its doors won’t open quickly. The timetable is less than three years.

As for what kind of programs the club will eventually offer, Executive Director Michelle Carrera said, “I can’t answer that now.”

Volker said his 12-year-old club handles about 150 youths a day and works on a budget of about $385,000. The number of youths served by the Atlantic City club, which needs a budget of about $1 million, is about 160, Carrera said. Volker and Carrera said the number of youths wanting to participate in Boys and Girls Club programs is increasing.

Volker and Carrera said it’s become increasingly difficult to raise funds for their clubs.

“I think for every non-profit, these days are more difficult,” Carrera said. “As the economy struggles, we struggle.”

The success of Boys and Girls Clubs fundraising varies by location, said John Miller, the national organization’s senior vice president of organizational and executive development services. The national organization can help local clubs with a variety of issues, including marketing and fundraising, he said.

“But even in challenging economic times, local clubs continue to remain focused on enabling all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring and responsible citizens,” Miller said.

“With the Boys and Girls Club of Atantic City, the organization has recently … selected an influential new chief executive officer, leadership team and board members who understand the local markets and are focused on providing the youth of Atlantic City with the services necessary for success,” he said.

The clubs are, more than ever, working to develop partnership with different groups that can help both financially and by providing programs.

“I think the challenge for us in the years ahead is to grown those partners and identify organizations that can understand if we don’t help our youths in the city, we cannot look a stronger economy in the future,” Carrera said. “They have to understand why this is a social and economic investment.”

To make the best use of the funds, Carrera said her club is studying the best programs that need to be developed in a city where federal statistics show as many as 50 percent of children live in poverty.

“We have been drafting the vision and analyzing the needs,” she said. “We really want to study the needs of the city.”

Volker said there aren’t many corporations in the Vineland area that can provide significant financial help. He said his 12-year-old club is also up against older non-profit organizations with established financial ties to different donors.

The youths who use the clubs say they’re happy to participate in the programs.

Hallie Bodine, an 11-year-old, sixth-grade student in Vineland, said she can’t always get all her homework done at school. She said her grades have improved because of the homework help she gets at the club.

“She’s real nice,” Bodine said of the volunteer who usually helps her with her homework.

Hema Puri, a para-professional at Vineland High School who volunteers at the Vineland club, says she sees the difference the club makes in students.

“It’s a big difference” Puri said. “They want to learn more. They learn every minute.”

Volker said he and his staff are working hard to make sure the finances are there to continue to help those boys and girls.

“We’re staying above water,” Volker said. “Of course, I’m going to say everything could be better.”

Staff writer

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