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JCC Youth Services, an "A-plus" Asset
by Betsy Sheldon

Bwing. It has a nifty ring to it. Kind of sounds like a hot new Internet server. Or a rising hip-hop artist. Or maybe the latest hybrid car.

As it happens, the Bwing is cool. It’s the name of the corridor
where the youth and middle-school programs—including after-school care, summer camp, and special events—are
based. The area on the southwest side of the building has been
known by generations of JCC kids as “Bwing.” With its industrial hallway, rooms with cast-off furnishings, and bathrooms that hadn’t been updated since before Al Gore invented the Internet, it did indeed feel like a “B”-rated attraction—not quite the “A” that the rest of the JCC was.

But through the efforts of two JCC youth directors, that’s changing. Over the past two years, Aaron Atlas, Director of Youth Services, and Ryan Edmunds, School-Age Services Program Coordinator, have been reinventing the Bwing through both physical improvements, new programming, and a whole lot of attitude adjustment. Today, Bwing buzzes with a vibrancy much more reflective of the young JCC members it serves. “We even have a logo,” says Ryan. “And a tag line—“Shaping the Minds and Bodies of Our Youth.” And that approach seems to be attracting a record number of kids.

Their mission to re-brand the JCC’s youth programming began to germinate when funding for physical improvements kick-started a transition. The walls were painted and the carpet was replaced. New furnishings included tables, chairs, desks, and a sleek, efficient cubby system. And more updates are to come.

A more-than-skin-deep makeover
Welcome as they are, these are only cosmetic improvements. What Aaron and Ryan seek is a deeper transformation. “We started looking at our programming in a proactive manner rather than a reactive manner,” Aaron says. “We wanted to create a culture of our own.” He credits Ryan, who joined the JCC full-time in 2010, for bringing in an outside perspective and fresh ideas.

Together, they honed their vision of Bwing as a place that practices the values of openness, wellness, responsibility and responsiveness. “We arranged the rooms to be more accommodating,” says Aaron. “With all the doors closed, it looked like an industrial building. We started leaving doors open, which makes it more friendly.”

“Instead of brownies and cookies and chips, we have fruit, vegetables, pretzels and graham crackers,” says Ryan. That focus on health and fitness also shapes the after-school activity. Sports and games in the gym or outside compliment afternoons of passive activity, such as homework, reading and board games. And where fitness and food intersect? “Often, if someone wants another banana, we encourage them to do 50 jumping jacks,” Ryan adds.

Can-do approach
Another critical component of Bwing relations is our responsiveness to parents and kids. “If we can do it, we’re gonna do it,” Aaron says. “We look at situations not as a challenge but as an opportunity.” He gives examples: They recognized a need to create specialty camps and brought in “fantastic teachers” to lead sports, arts and dance camps that thrived last summer. They observed that the area where children wanted to be picked up was exposed to sun, so they put tents up to provide shade. They realized they
were throwing out 1,000 paper cups a day for water, so they bought a hydration system that provides fresh cupless drinks for kids throughout the day.

They try different events: A recent fall festival attracted 300 people. The two created a Shutterfly website so that parents could experience camp. “Now,” says Aaron, “parents feel we listen to what they’re saying. They enjoy what we’re offering.”

Programs to Grow on
The results of that can-do approach are bearing fruit. The summer camp had a record enrollment in 2011. The K–5 after school care has a waiting list. And other Bwing events attract healthy turnouts, too.

“We’re busting at the seams with children,” Ryan notes. “We’ve run out of square footage.” All this on little more than word-of-mouth promotion.
Now that they have something to build on, Ryan says, the timing is right for more exposure. In addition to the Bwing logo and tag line, “We’ve got a banner outside on the tennis court fence and on the bulkhead in the west lobby. We’re recreating the entire Bwing entrance with a mural and lighting.”
Despite the space challenges, Aaron and Ryan recognize the importance of growing the youth program. “It’s a lifeline for the JCC,” Aaron observes. “So many of our new memberships come through after-care and camp. A lot of kids and families get to know the JCC through us.”

What’s next?
Although the K–5 group is the largest of the JCC’s youth population, the department also includes programming for teens, directed by Kenny Lambert and located on a separate building on the campus. Middle-schoolers, are also served in Bwing. Aaron plans to address changes in these two areas, in the near future.

On tap for Bwing now are new flooring in the corridor, art room, and game room, which will reduce maintenance costs. For next camp season, Aaron hopes to construct a gaga pit for playing the popular Israeli ball game.
Meanwhile, Aaron and Ryan continue to flesh out their vision for Bwing. “We have a lot of ideas,” Aaron says, “but we dont want to weaken our strengths by doing too much. We want to make sure what we’re offering is high-quality.”

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