Once a refuge from a rough neighborhood, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice celebrates 50 years by welcoming the community in

Story By Christina Campodonico • Photos by Niall O’Brien

A toy space helmet makes for a fun (and maybe symbolic) prop in this portrait of a Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice member taken for the nonprofit’s Inside Out Project, a concept created by the artist JR that turns portraiture into public art. Photo by Niall O’Brien.

Blink and you might miss the Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice’s brick-and-glass façade flush with Lincoln Boulevard. Though one of the tallest buildings in the immediate area, the three-story youth center has been such an integral part of Venice’s urban and institutional landscape over the last 19 years — the club itself has been around since 1968 — that it blends into the neighborhood’s civic life almost too well.

“If there’s an organization that’s around for a while, people kind of figure, ‘Oh well it must be financially solid because it’s been around for 50 years,’” says BGCV’s Interim CEO Patrick Mahoney. “So one of the things that I need to do is reignite the fire of support for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice in the community.”

Operated out of converted duplex on Lincoln for its first two decades, the club was once a rare safe place for kids in a rough neighborhood, tucked behind a high fence. Now it serves more than 3,000 kids a year across multiple sites, offering after-school programming so good that Westside parents are clamoring to get their kids enrolled.

“By week one this year, we were over-subscribed,” says Mahoney. “We’re literally at capacity.”

In other words, an institution once concerned with how to keep bad influences out is trying to figure out how to bring more of the Venice community and its resources in.

One way the club is reaching out is by throwing a glitzy 50th anniversary gala next Friday (Sept. 28) at the Jonathan Beach Club in Santa Monica.

Another is by turning itself inside out, so to speak.

Slow down a little as you drive past the club and you’ll see a series of black-and-white wheatpaste photographs featuring the faces of Boys & Girls Clubs members. Captured near the end of last school year, the kids are smiling, giggling and making silly faces.

The images are part of an international art project known as “Inside Out.” The brainchild of TED Prize-winning street artist and photographer JR, the project crowdsources portrait photographs from around the world, prints them and ships them back to the creators for them to paste up wherever they’d like.

BGCV board member Ned Benson initially brought the idea to the club and, with the help of professional photographer Niall O’Brien and a friend connected to JR, facilitated dozens of Boys & Girls Clubs members having their portraits taken like movie stars. But there was not one diva among the 53 kids.

“They were enigmatic, they were sweet … and they were all super excited and genuine,” said O’Brien, who’s exhibited photography around the world. “Their personalities were so great and they were such fantastic kids.”

That’s the image Mahoney hopes to project by displaying “Inside Out,” which also gets a one-night run during the gala.

The ‘Inside Out’ project was sort of our first foray into telling Venice, ‘Hey, we’re here,’” he says. “Art, which is one of our strengths, is a way to do that.”

Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice members Sterling (3rd grade), Dyno (5th grade), Margeaux (3rd grade), Doryen (3rd grade), Althea (12th grade) and Julian (4th grade) ham it up for “Inside Out”

Step inside the James A. Collins Youth Center and it’s bursting with creativity — future programmers are building robots out of Legos, pint-sized guitarists are making music in a state-of-the-art recording booth, and little Picassos are whipping up masterpieces in the art room, which over the last 12 years or so has produced 19 finalists for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s National Arts Contest.

“Welcome to the chaos,” BGCV Art Director Lalo Marquez tells me. But really it’s more of a beautifully organized chaos, where after a short lesson on complementary colors, kids can cut up construction paper to their hearts’ content, work on a diorama of their own design, or finish off a canvas.

There’s plenty of colorful creations to inspire them, too — metal spray cans transformed into flower bouquets, ukuleles sprouting with petals and foliage, and some paintings so skillfully rendered they’re made even more impressive by the fact that their creator only picked up a paintbrush a year ago.

But the industrious bustle of the art room is also the calm in a center of the storm, because for kids like 18-year-old Ulises it’s a sanctuary from the rapid changes happening around him. A senior at Venice High and a finalist for this year’s Boys & Girls Clubs of America National Arts Contest, the soft-spoken teen with a knack for charcoal drawing works at a skate shop on the boardwalk part-time and has seen what the popularity of Bird scooters has done for that business’s bottom line. He also doesn’t see how the large, expensive buildings going up around the tiny apartment he shares with his mom will make the world a more equitable place. But at the club he finds time, space and inspiration to focus on his artwork.

“It’s a good place to relax. I stay here till 8 p.m. sometimes, just hanging out or painting,” he says.

“The idea is to find the right medium that fits them,” says Marquez of his methods. “I want them to stay inspired. How do I do that? Not let everyday challenges overtake their dreams.”

The club began as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) project on Venice Beach but quickly grew into an integral part of neighborhood life under the leadership of the club’s founder, the late David C. Mandell. During his tenure the club repurposed a duplex that was on its current site and established a community thrift shop to support itself — a very grassroots way of doing things, recalls JR Dzubak.

“Even back then, he was leading the charge very Venetian-like,” says Dzubak, who succeeded Mandell as executive director from 1996 to 2006 and was a member of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice during the late ’80s. “The logo was a palm tree … with a picture of the old duplex.”

While an independent spirit drove the club’s early years — Dzubak notes the BGCV was an early adopter of adding the word “Girls” to the club’s name well before clubs across the nation were mandated to do so — Mandell was also trying to address the unique needs of Venice’s community at that time.

“Venice was not what it is today. It was a much more gang-infested neighborhood,” says Dzubak. “It was shady. It was hard. There was a a high level of gang activity and dealing of drugs and alcohol in the Venice 90291 area.

“The club was probably the safest place to be,” he continues. “On Lincoln Boulevard, the club had a 13-foot metal, chain link fence that was way higher than any other fence on Lincoln Boulevard, because it really was a place for kids to feel safe and secure. It was just different times.”

A new era for the club began in 1994.The Northridge quake had left the duplex red-tagged with substantial plumbing issues, remembers Dzubak, so a capital campaign to build a new home kicked into high gear, with local entrepreneur James A. Collins leading the charge. The building’s first floor opened in 1999, and its second and third floors the following summer.

“When you consider where Venice was at the time… and now we had a 25,000-[plus]-square foot building that allowed us to open up programs for counseling and art … it was a miracle,” says real estate developer Michael Wise, who oversaw fundraising for the building while on the board of directors. “It was something that the city needed, Venice needed, the community needed, and it made a huge difference. … That gave kids a choice between being in a gang … or having a place to go.”

Kameron (middle school), Kaylee (3rd grade), Noah (middle school), Gianna (3rd grade), Ace (2nd grade) and Maxine (4th grade)

Even with a brand-new building, the early 2000s brought new challenges. A 2003 shooting outside the club rattled its community during Dzubak’s tenure, and the economic downturn of 2008 hit working families especially hard, observes Erikk Aldridge, who served as the club’s CEO from 2006 to 2013.

“It was a tough time for a lot of people,” he remembers. “It was also a time of uncertainty in regards to where would our dollars come from to support the club — how would we deal with the need of the families that were going through these challenges?

“There were times we were supposed to be closed at 6 p.m. but you would see kids staying later, our staff staying later and coming up with other kinds of programming after hours, because parents were working [multiple jobs.] They needed someplace safe and productive for their kids to be.”

After the recession, a new Venice emerged — one where economic disparities stood out in sharp relief.

“It increased [a sense of] the haves and the have-nots,” says Aldridge. “First, it was residential — you could see a mansion next to a bungalow, and we had members that lived in some of those bungalows. … It’s one thing to be a kid in a neighborhood where everyone is on equal footing, versus being in a situation now where, ‘I’m [a kid] in my elementary school and there’s this person in my class who has extreme wealth, but my family is a service worker in the area and we really struggle.’”

While multimillion-dollar homes continue to pop up throughout Venice, the majority of families served by the Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice members’ earn $40,000 or less annually, 40% of kids come from single family households, and 70% qualify for free or reduced-priced school meals, according to an infographic released by the club.

“As the community has changed we’ve seen a larger gap in the haves and have-nots and that is proven to demonstrate even more need for the services that we provide,” says Mahoney. “Excellence in programming in art and music and some of the other things we really excel in are what’s kind of being stripped out of public school budgets. So while kids who go to private school have access to a diversity of educational offerings, kids who go to public school don’t. We provide a sort of equilibrium to try to give access to learning opportunities that are diversified for everyone.”

At the same time, Mahoney notes that not all club members are relying on scholarships these days. While the club gives away about $45,000 in scholarships each year, the split between dues-paying members ($250/year) and scholarship recipients is about 60/40.

“We have a really wide diversity in terms of socioeconomic backgrounds of our families, which is also something kind of unique to Venice,” he adds. “I think parents from all different walks of life and economic situations see the value in what we provide, and so we have a really strong diversity, which I think is important because it mirrors the landscape of the area we serve.”

That landscape is also changing the club’s leadership, observes James A. Collins’ daughter Cathy Hession, who has served on the club’s board for nearly 20 years. Newer board members, she says, are coming from the worlds of film,
television and technology.

“We’ve had such a tremendous number of young, interesting people that have moved into the Venice area and care deeply about the community,” says Hession. “We’ve had like five babies
born to board members in the last year and a half.”

Mahoney hopes to tap that young, creative energy in the club’s Silicon Beach backyard to sustain the next 50 years.

“From the advertising agencies that might one day employ our creatives to the technology companies for whom we’re training the next generation of coders … it would be nice to develop stronger relationships,” he says. “That’s one of our crucial elements for our success, is to get the folks that are moving into Venice to support the longest-running youth program in Venice … to ensure that all kids in Venice have access to a safe place after school.”

Or, as 11-year-old Kelsey tells me as she wets a pottery wheel with a sponge: “You’re free here. You can go to the gym. You can go to the art room. … Here, you get to play.”

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Venice’s 50th Anniversary Celebration is at 5 p.m. next Friday, Sept. 28, at the Jonathan Beach Club, 850 Palisades Beach Road, Santa Monica. Tickets start at $350. Call (310) 574-5054 or visit bgcvgala.auction-bid.org.