Q: Erin, you’ve been devoted to Boys & Girls Clubs for 15 years. You are known as a champion, partner, and advocate for kids – and for your big heart for this work. What’s your “why”?
Erin Porteous (EP): I envision the work we do as leveling the playing field for all kids. Kids are all born with a different set of cards, and some are dealt a really tough hand to play. My commitment to social justice runs deep, as does my belief that for those to whom much has been given, much is expected. As leaders, coaches, mentors, and guides, it is our job at Boys & Girls Clubs to use our dedication, resources, and passion to open doors for kids and with kids. We are called to help Club members not only envision their greatest potential but to turn those dreams into real possibilities. We help them chart a course to great futures and walk alongside them as they pursue them – breaking through barriers and creating access to opportunities along the way.
Every person in my immediate family dedicated their life to serving others, whether as teachers, nurses, or firefighters. As I grew up, I watched and admired my parents, who devoted their lives to serving children, the sick, and the church. From an early age, my brother and I both began seeing that we, too, might someday follow in their footsteps. That vision took hold and now, years later, my brother works as a firefighter here in Denver and I’m proudly celebrating my 15th year with Boys & Girls Clubs (serendipitously today, October 29th).
Q: How did it all begin? What was your first job at Boys & Girls Clubs?
EP: My first job at Boys & Girls Clubs was Special Events Coordinator. Before I applied, I went out and bought Crane & Co. paper. I had my resume printed on it at Kinko’s so the ink wouldn’t smear and mailed it in through snail mail. A week later, I put in a follow-up call and email to the HR department. Sure enough, I received an email response from the head of HR that began, “Dear Eric”. I was so thrilled to receive the response that I didn’t bother offering a correction!
During my first eight years with Boys & Girls Clubs, I held two additional jobs to stay afloat. I loved being Boys & Girls Clubs’ Special Events Coordinator, but couldn’t pay my rent without supplemental income. I waitressed in the evenings and worked special events on the weekend for a different company. As I took on more responsibilities and earned new roles during those eight years, my strong work ethic became established. I reached a big, personal milestone when I finally worked up to a position that allowed me to leave my two other jobs and dedicate my energy solely to the Clubs.
In light of that history, I should mention that one of my initiatives as CEO is ensuring Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver offers competitive salaries in the marketplace. In addition, we prioritize investing in our staff and have made tremendous strides in the areas of paid time off, incredible health benefits at low cost to employees, paid leave for new parents, holiday vacation time, and others.
Q: When you started working for Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver, did you envision becoming CEO?
EP: I had never dreamed of becoming CEO. Even as I climbed the rungs of the professional ladder at Boys & Girls Clubs during those first eight years, my horizon was naively limited. I was always committed to doing my best job in the roles I held but hadn’t lifted my gaze to what I might do next. That vision and pursuit came with age and was fostered by incredible mentors and role models. I had the opportunity to work under two wonderful CEOs whose tenured careers and exceptional storytelling abilities deeply influenced my leadership journey, igniting an ambition to someday join the leadership team. After being recognized as a 40 under 40 leader at 29 years old, I lifted my sights even higher, seeing how far in the distance I could envision myself. As advancement opportunities became available, I seized each one with a smile – even as my confidence was still budding.
Q: What does it mean to you to serve as Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver’s first female CEO in history?
EP: When our nation’s first female Vice President was elected in 2020, the conversation around women in leadership was elevated to historic heights. This monumental moment for women invited me to reflect on my journey to becoming the first female CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver in its 60-year history. Until the mid-1990s, Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver only admitted boys, which meant I was ineligible to join when I reached the minimum age of six. Now, as the mother of two young girls and the first female leader of our incredible organization, I am proud and overjoyed that girls will grow up in a world where women rising to the highest levels of local and national office is not only the norm but the expectation.
I am deeply humbled by the legions of women who forged and widened the glide path to leadership for women. As for my journey, I credit my female mentors and advocates: my amazing mother, two kind and selfless grandmothers who are still living today, my wonderful mother-in-law, Kathy Luna (whose tenure at Boys & Girls Clubs exceeded 40 years), Sidney Gates (our first female Board Chairman), and former Board Chairman Laurie Korneffel. These amazing women guided, supported, and championed me in an organization that, like many, had always been led by men.
Now, as I sit at the head of the leadership table, I approach my role with the same work ethic and humility I’ve always been known for. I recognize my power, influence, and ability to open doors for others who will follow. My job is not to be the voice of all women or all Club kids; my job is to use my elbows at the table to make room for other seats and voices beside me.
Q: What qualities do you try to bring to the CEO role?
EP: Hard work, humility, honesty, and humor. The role of the CEO is demanding and challenging. It requires significant discipline to stay focused on the organization’s long-term goals. The CEO can’t always cross things off her list, because strategic direction is realized over time – sometimes years, or even a decade. The role calls for me to constantly think about the organization, and I do: whether I’m on a run, listening to a podcast, or awakened by a thought about work at 2 in the morning (which is what the stack of sticky notes next to my bed is for).
My job is also to shine a bright light on our incredible Club staff, who have the hardest job in show business. Every day, they serve our kids at the Clubs. The work is rewarding, and it is also physically and emotionally exhausting. When you are in the “kid business” and you understand some of the big challenges Club kids face, it can be very hard to shut off at the end of the day. Our team holds those we serve in the highest regard and has great respect for the role they are privileged to play in the lives of kids and families. Our frontline staff know and see the difference it makes in a young person’s life when someone believes in them, stands by them, and instills hope in them. And they bring that level of regard to every member who walks through the Clubs’ doors. The relationships between our staff and members are powerful, and some of those bonds outlast members’ adolescent years. We all have a teacher, coach, or another mentor who helped shape us in unimaginable ways. When Club members join in their elementary years and come back each fall, our staff often play a deeply influential role in their lives, second only to that of their parents or guardians.
Q: What gets you out of bed in the morning and ready for the day?
EP: Truthfully, a little one yelling, “Momma!” from her crib is typically what gets me out of bed, between 5 and 6 a.m. After that, I fit in a quick workout while thinking about the day’s priorities. When I’m done, I practice releasing my sense of “control” for the day, knowing there are always new hurdles, opportunities, and demands to embrace and take in stride.
Q: What is your funniest memory during your time here?
EP: I love this question. As I said, my values are hard work, humility, honesty, and humor…we have to have a little bit of humor in life. Being in the kid business, each day brings laughter, tears, and moments of reflection on the innocence, honesty, and joy children bring to the world. Their happiness is contagious and they share it so freely with those around them.
There are so many humorous and happy memories I have from my time here that I can’t choose just one, but a memory that comes to mind today is this: I was talking with two young girls at Gates Camp (our summer camp near Ward, Colorado). They shared how much they liked looking out at the hippos living in the middle of the lake. Their bewilderment was so strong I just listened and smiled. Later, I asked the Camp Director about the “hippos” and he told me the kids thought hippos lived in the lake when they were actually just seeing giant boulders that had surfaced during the summer due to low water levels!
Another memory that brings me joy: I was giving a Club tour to a guest with the help of one of our young members. Our guest asked this young person, “What do you like about the Club?” and they replied, “This is not my Club, it’s my family.”
Q: You’ve now been serving as CEO for 5 years. What is your vision for the kids, families, and communities we serve five years from today?
EP: We don’t know exactly what kids will need in 5, 10, and 25 years from now – the landscape for youth changes so rapidly, especially in Metro Denver where growth and change take place at light speed. What we do know is that the things that make us special – our staff, kids, and our Clubs – will continue to shine as a beacon in our communities. We will be there for whatever needs our members bring through the Club doors. I am proud that this organization has been responsive and adaptive to the needs of those we serve – a great example is the way program leaders responded to COVID-19 school closures by finding a way to keep the Clubs open and supporting kids’ education. We heard so often from families and partners, “You were open when school buildings were closed.”
What I also know is that we will continue to be excellent, thoughtful stewards of our talent and resources when making decisions about how to best serve our kids. Whether through continuing to make impactful investments in our work, lowering barriers to accessing housing or healthcare, paving the way to workforce readiness in new ways, or partnering in deeper ways with school districts, we will continue to show up in the rooms and neighborhoods where we can make a meaningful impact in the lives of kids who will one day be the leaders of Metro Denver – and beyond.
Congrats to Erin on 15 incredible years of impact! Cheers to everything in store.