by Erin Porteous, CEO

Character. In recent weeks, character has become the topic of national conversation, and it’s not the fun, “Who’s your favorite character on [whatever show you’re currently bingeing]?” kind. It’s the grittier, more complicated variety, as in “It builds character” – the part of you that determines how you respond to adversity, triumph, and everything in between.

As a new mom and the CEO of a nonprofit that serves 2,000 kids across the Denver Metro Area every day, I’ve been thinking a lot about the lessons we teach our children about character. As the saying goes, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” But does that adage still ring true today? Or is character something we merely pay lip service to when it’s convenient? If we’re willing to look the other way when someone crosses the line because their actions benefit us, what does that say about our character?

At Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver, we believe character matters. It’s your moral compass; your “true north” that guides you to do the right thing, even when the right thing seems like the hardest thing in the world to do. You can lose material possessions, money, power, health…but your character is something that no one can take away from you. And it’s what people remember about you long after you’re gone.

I know many of you think of Boys & Girls Clubs as a safe place for kids to go after school, and you’re right that is the foundation of our work. When our members feel physically and emotionally safe, they are then able to take the next step and participate in our Club activities. Our Club staff and programs help children flourish academically, develop their athletic, artistic and social skills, and cultivate their character. We teach our Club members that they are responsible for the choices they make; actions speak louder than words, but they are accountable for both. We proactively get our kids thinking about the importance of behaving with integrity and establishing a “personal brand” – who they are and what they stand for.

Many of our Club kids come from volatile circumstances, living at or below the poverty line and having lost one – sometimes both – parents to gang violence, substance abuse, and/or prison. It’s one thing to tell a child “Where you start doesn’t determine where you finish”; it’s another thing to be that child, living these harsh realities day in and day out.

I’m often humbled by our Club members’ fortitude; by how, despite living in the bleakest of circumstances, so many of them come to Club with open hearts and a desire to make the most of their potential and the opportunities we provide. Our kids are not easily daunted by disappointment, hardship, or failure. Their grit becomes an advantage. It builds character. However, when the going gets rough – when the “it” in “It builds character” puts their resilience to the test – we provide support and guidance, helping them navigate challenges with honor, courage, and tenacity.

Malachi Haynes, a Club member and recent high school graduate, exemplifies what can be accomplished when we nurture a child’s character as well as their natural talent. Malachi joined the Boettcher Boys & Girls Club when he was in first grade and spent 12 years in our program, as he came of age in a community lacking positive role models, watching friends and neighbors succumb to drug and alcohol abuse, gang activity, and violent crime.

Malachi knew he wanted to carve a different path. He aspired to become a leader that kids in his community would admire and emulate, not just for what he accomplished, but for the person he is and the principles he lives by. So in addition to working his tail off to maintain a 3.76 GPA, Malachi passionately lobbied his peers to abstain from alcohol and substance abuse – a pledge he himself adheres to. When he noticed a group of Club kids who were reading two to three levels below their grade level – and showed little to no interest in reading in general – he created a motivational tutoring program called “Double Trouble.” For every hour spent reading and studying under Malachi’s tutelage, the kids got to engage in an hour of physical activity. As a result, every student in the Double Trouble program improved their literacy levels, and they began turning to Malachi for guidance beyond reading.

“Life can change in an instant, especially for youth,” says Malachi, now a freshman at Colorado State University, where he is striving to become the first in his family to graduate from a four-year college. “I thank the Club staff for allowing me to spend my ‘instances’ inside those doors becoming a better person, rather than taking my chances with all the risks that unsupervised life brings. Being a Club member has saved my life in that sense.”

Just when we thought we couldn’t be any prouder of the principled, impactful young man he has become, Malachi was named Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s Youth of the Year for 2018-2019. At a recent ceremony in Washington D.C., he was awarded a $25,000 college scholarship renewable for four years, and he will serve as a spokesman for Boys & Girls Clubs of America, representing 4 million Club kids across the country.

As we continue our national conversation around the relevance and value of personal integrity, I imagine the power of one young man’s character and commitment to his ideals manifested in those four million Club kids. That’s my “true north.” That’s why we’re doubling down on character-building at Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver. Because character matters.