Personal connections help agency serve youth across Columbus.

Greeting children by name when they walk into one of the facilities of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Columbus may seem like a small thing, but it can make a big difference, says the nonprofit's executive director, Rebecca Asmo.

In order for the organization to help children reach their potential, club staff members must make connections and build relationships with the children they serve, says Asmo. And that starts the moment a client walks in the door.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of Columbus continually looks at what type of experience it's offering kids and focuses on making it an “optimal” one, she says. The club routinely asks kids what matters most to them and works to deliver it. Club members have made it clear that they want to have a say in what happens at the club and that they enjoy themselves more when it's obvious that the staff functions well as a team, she says. They also like that the club has established routines, she adds. All of these elements help members “feel like they belong,” she says, which goes a long ways toward keeping them engaged.

Once they've got kids interested in joining and staying with the club, staff members can introduce them to their programming, which centers on building strong character and leadership skills, ensuring academic success, leading a healthy lifestyle and planning for a future after high school.

The organization‘s seven clubs in Columbus open their doors after school and in the summer to offer children a safe and enriching place to go when their school day or year ends. Clubs exist in schools, community buildings and as stand-alone facilities.

Time spent at the club usually involves a mix of academics, physical activities and other programming. The clubs also provide hot meals every day. Last year, the clubs served almost 6,000 children.

Providing kids with a fun summer program that also helps them avoid the learning loss that can occur when kids are on break can make a big difference academically, says Asmo.

The clubs also try to give members “the same access to opportunities” that children who live in more affluent neighborhoods would have, she says.

When teens remain active with a club and have that “optimal club experience,” they are 40 percent more likely to be on track to graduate from high school, Asmo says. Belonging to a Cleveland-area club made a difference in Taylor Scott's decision to go to college, says the Ohio State University psychology major.

Taylor started volunteering at her local club and quickly decided to join. “It's been a really important part of my life,” says Scott.

As a club member, Scott got involved in programming designed to develop leadership skills, which helped shape her personality and set up her up for success in school, she says. “I was a pretty shy kid in high school. This brought me out of my shell.”

Club involvement also taught her the importance of setting a goal and completing it—even when the work gets hard. That message, which she shares with younger students at the Columbus club where she volunteers, continues to help her.

The “stick-to-it-ness” that she honed as a club member helped her succeed in a calculus class and still propels her to graduation. “I definitely think it's an important skill to have,” she says.

In addition to working to keep kids engaged, the organization strives for strong employee retention—because employees are the foundation of members' connections to the clubs, Asmo says. It's a matter that she gives lots of attention to.

“We work at helping people feel connected to the bigger picture of what we do. We still have work to do,” she says.

The organization's main challenges, however, are those of its children. “Our biggest challenges are the challenges our kids are facing,” she says. “Our kids are having to navigate poverty and neighborhoods that are struggling.”

That's why she's so committed to growing the organization's reach. The organization has opened five new clubs since she took the helm in 2010.

Asmo has also tripled the nonprofit's budget over the past three years with a focus on serving more kids, says Randy Dupler, who serves as president of the board of directors for the local organization.

“Rebecca's commitment and passion for the BGCA movement has transformed our local organization over the past six years. We have grown from two clubs to seven and continue to add more clubs to serve more kids,” the board president says.

“Rebecca brings an entrepreneurial spirit and approach to solving problems and growing our footprint and impact in creative, non-traditional ways.”

Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.