POVERTY, drug use, and poor education prod much of America's urban youth toward a life on the streets. But such a life is far from inevitable, says William Bricker, national director of the Boys Clubs of America. His organization has served the youth of cities for 125 years and he has been personally involved with Boys Clubs for nearly 40 years.
``I still feel that the most important ingredient we can give to kids is hope,'' he says.
The goal of the Boys Clubs, as Mr. Bricker explains it, is to give inner-city children an immediate alternative to the lure of the streets.
Traditionally this has meant an active athletic program, a permanent club facility located where kids can easily get to it, and a professional staff that's on the job daily. At present, there are 1,100 local clubs with over 1 million members.
The organization is currently striving to extend its reach by including girls in its programs (one-third of the membership nationwide is female) and by tailoring its activities to the tastes of today's youngsters.
Becoming a ``Boys and Girls Club'' instead of a ``Boys Club'' is a matter of local choice for each club and many have taken that step over the past 12 years. The result can be a boom in activity.
Al Cushing, assistant executive director of San Francisco Boys and Girls Club, notes that membership in one neighborhood has jumped by 400 since the switch to coed last January. The reason for including girls, says Mr. Cushing, was simply that ``here in San Francisco there were not a lot of girls' programs.''
The activities offered girls are ``pretty much the same'' as for boys, says Cushing. The emphasis is on athletics, crafts and arts, and tutoring.
The Milwaukee Boys Club also became a boys and girls organization this past January. But it had been serving girls on a limited capacity for 10 or 12 years, says its assistant executive director, James Raffel. It was therefore a ``smooth transition,'' he observes.
Mr. Raffel says that his club, one of the oldest in the country, constantly tries to update its programs using feedback of members and parents. Because of this, he says, ``we're moving ahead with a computer education program.''
The club's computer center, equipped with 15 personal computers, never lacks for enthusiastic patrons. Raffel suggests, too, that the center helps meet a recognized educational need, since inner-city children usually lag far behind their suburban peers in ``computer literacy skills,'' which can be a key to future employment.
Less weighty, perhaps, but just as popular with members, is the skateboarding program at the Boys Club in the San Francisco Haight district.
Cushing notes that not only has the program been a tremendous hit, it has also altered the ethnic makeup of that particular club.
The San Francisco club used to be 80 percent black, he says, but in the course of a year, since the skateboarding program began, white membership has rocketed.
Innovations like computer training and skateboard competition help keep Boys Clubs vital. But the real heart of the organization remains its commitment to keeping young people off the street, maintains Mr. Bricker, a big, jovial man who recently stopped by the Monitor offices in Boston.
He says that Boys Clubs were ahead of their time in addressing family difficulties that have now come into full national view.
``We have recognized for many years that there are such things as single-parent families,'' he says. The city youngsters served by the clubs have often had just one parent at home, because of either divorce, death, or desertion, Mr. Bricker explains.
The perennial question, he continues, is how to prepare these children for a productive life.
Today, that task usually means dealing with such social ills as drug use and Boys Clubs have educational programs aimed at that problem. It also means combating delinquency. The clubs' athletic programs play a big role here, says Bricker, by ``helping kids get rid of excess energy.''
Boys Clubs have a firm ``open door'' policy -- no restrictions on membership -- which makes them places where young newcomers to the United States can begin learning about this country, says Bricker.
The clubs have always shouldered the responsibility of helping immigrants ``to start to feel comfortable in their new American setting,'' he affirms. And some clubs shape activities to the tastes of an immigrant population. Clubs in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, for instance, have switched their emphasis from basketball to soccer.
Whether it's helping immigrants settle in or serving as a haven from the street, the Boys Clubs frequently function as a ``beacon of stability'' in a community, says Bricker. The clubs, he adds, have to be places where kids feel ``there are people who understand them and respect them as individuals.''