Pittsburgh: Within the Boys & Ladies Golf equipment of Western PA we mobilized to assist a studying location throughout the pandemic.


These four digits bring out a multitude of feelings for those who have lived through the year that will forever be remembered in the annals of history.

The year started ominously enough with the Australian bushfires, the tragic deaths of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others. Promising young life shortened and a legend lost. It seems that 2020 was trying to prepare us for something that none of us could ever have imagined.

News came of a virus that could threaten the world. We are the United States, we thought there was no way it could ever affect us. The coronavirus was a world away, in a Chinese province that many of us have never heard of. We planned to think about summer camps, graduations, proms, vacations, cookouts with friends and family, trips to the beach.

They say when you make plans, God laughs. That saying never struck me like it did last year. The virus crept closer and closer. It was like a wave growing in the distance and you couldn’t really tell how big it was until it crashed on the shore and it’s too late to run. The next thing you know is that you are drowning and not knowing which way to go or if there is hope of getting out.

In the first few weeks of the pandemic, I lost my stepfather to COVID. He was stuck in Yemen and unable to travel home due to travel restrictions. He traveled to Yemen with my mother to meet his grandchildren for the first time. My mother was able to travel back shortly before the pandemic. He stayed a few more weeks to spend more time with his family. He got sick and couldn’t travel back. Unfortunately he was diagnosed with COVID and died a few days later. We were a world away and couldn’t help. We couldn’t see him one last time, talk to him one last time. We couldn’t be there to say our final goodbyes when he was buried. It was devastating.

That person who brought so much joy and love to our family was forever lost to us.

As bad as it was for me and my family, my first thoughts went to our young people and the thousands of members who call the Boys & Girls Club their home here in Allegheny County. As a former club kid and lifelong employee who has spent almost every day of his life in a club, I know what the club means to you. What it meant to me. The children who depend on us because they know they’ll be greeted by a smiling face, a loving nickname and a hot meal. A place where they feel safe and where they can be recognized for their achievements. A place where they feel useful and have influence in a world where they have little influence.

What are you going to do? Where are they going Who will be that supportive ear when things are difficult at home? It broke my heart.

I grew up in the boys & girls clubs. My home club was Lincoln Sq. Boys Club in Worcester, Ma. After that clubhouse closed, I helped build a clubhouse in the Plumley Village housing estate where I grew up. In 2005, my family and I moved to Pittsburgh to build a mosque with a few friends. I reached out to the local Boys & Girls Club immediately and luckily they were looking for a director for their new clubhouse in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. It seemed like a divine intervention.

I’ve spent almost every day of my life in a boys & girls club. The two months we closed in Allegheny County in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic were the longest I’ve been outside of the clubs. The first day I went back to the club was cathartic. It felt like a breath of fresh air. There weren’t any children in the building. We hadn’t started programming yet. We mobilized toiletries to serve our members as best as possible. To be in the place that has influenced my life so deeply, with the ability to do something to influence the lives of others when they needed it most. That’s what I was built for. The club taught me that.

I am fortunate to work with a group of people who care deeply about our youth. The kind of people who are ready to do whatever it takes to make a positive impact on the lives of our children and their communities. The kind of people who take action when needed.

We did that. We created, we innovated and activated. We have created virtual clubhouses where kids can connect with other members across town. Children came to us from different parts of the city and from different clubhouses. They were united by the love of the clubs and their need for connection. We played, studied and cried. We leaned on each other as we adjusted to this new way of life.

We found partners like Lowe’s who have helped us supply hygiene and cleaning products to over 1,000 families across western Pennsylvania. Our Carnegie, Pennsylvania clubhouse became the turnstile manufacturing packages of hand sanitizer, detergent, and hygiene products. Our van was used to deliver hygiene and cleaning supplies to our families. And after a few trips, the van was recognized by the people in the community. Children ran away when I drove to their house.

There were so many people working behind the scenes to make everything possible. I was lucky enough to be out in the field and see the effects. I had to see this hope that we all needed.

One day while driving through Mckeesport, everything hit me when I remembered where I was as a young person and how difficult it would have been for me to deal with the food insecurity and financial instability. The uncertainty about what tomorrow brings has been the norm for me and the kids who grew up where I did, but this pandemic has exacerbated everything. What kind of situation would I have been in if I had lived through this? I pulled the van over and started crying. It wasn’t just sadness that overtook me. It was hope, joy, despair, urgency. The emotions hit me all at once. It grounded me because we went out of our way to find a solution. That was something to be grateful for at a time. Things to be grateful for were hard to come by.

I went home every day and shared the stories with my family, colleagues. What was going on was too big to keep to myself.

The work went on. We were able to open a summer camp for the children at our Carnegie, Lawrenceville and Millvale clubhouses, under the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At first we worried that it would be too much for the children to handle. How could they keep social distance and wear masks when it was against their nature? As always, their resilience has amazed us again and again. They wore their masks and kept their distance because they wanted to be with their friends. They understood how important it was.

We were able to get through the summer without COVID cases. We were able to convey a sense of normalcy in a world that was far from normal – a world with people protesting that basic human rights weren’t killed on the streets and a pandemic that didn’t care who you were . Through all of this we gave them a positive place to go into a negative world.

If this were the end of the story, it would be a story that had it all. Unfortunately not.

Because we gave kids a place to go while their parents were at work and had their schoolwork done, I had to recognize the inequality of the pandemic. There were children in certain school districts who had resources that others didn’t. Some kids had top-notch devices, while others had to share an iPad with siblings. The inequality that got their heads up when George Floyd was murdered by those who swore to serve and protect us had found its way to our front door. The shape is different, but the inequality is the same, which hinders the life of our young people because of their race and origins.

Fortunately, we are here for you. We have been tested and proven that we are up to the challenge, regardless of the challenge. We could show them that they can overcome any obstacle, no matter what obstacle they face. Not just because they had us, but because we had each other. The world is not perfect, we are not even close to getting things back to normal, but there is hope and a little hope can go a long way.

Juan Perez is Senior Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Boys & Girls Clubs in Western Pa. He can be reached at J_perez@bgcwpa.org.

This article was produced by PublicSource.org, a nonprofit news organization for the Pittsburgh area. PublicSource tells stories for a better Pittsburgh. Sign up for their free email newsletter at publicsource.org/newsletters.

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