Hunters Point Boys & Girls Club

San Francisco Bay View, June 2000

Hunters Point Boys & Girls Club:
40 years of making a difference

By Max Millard

What do Michael Jordan, Steve Young, Bill Cosby, Shaquille O'Neal, Denzel Washington, Ossie Davis, Deion Sanders, Evander Holyfield, and President Clinton have in common?

All, in their youth, were active members of an organization that helped them develop their talents, steer clear of trouble, and learn leadership skills -- the Boys Club of America. Founded in Hartford, Connecticut in 1860, it is now called the Boys & Girls Club of America, and has grown to 2,500 chapters nationwide. But its purpose has never changed -- to bring kids in from the streets to a clean, safe environment where they can play and study.

Hunters Point, a prosperous neighborhood during World War II when the Naval shipyard was a vital part of America's booming war machine, entered a period of economic decline soon after the Japanese surrender in August 1945. The situation worsened in 1974, when the shipyard closed and few new jobs came in to fill the gap. Despite its spectacular views of the bay, the area of Hunters Point near the shipyard has few stores or businesses, and a great scarcity of activities for young people.

But there is one place that has been making a difference for almost 40 years -- the Hunters Point Boys and Girls Club at 729 Kirkwood Avenue. An independent, nonprofit organization, it opened on July 13, 1960 in a roughly constructed building that was erected in 1943 as a temporary structure for war workers.

In 1992, the building was upgraded and expanded from 8000 to 12,000 square feet, thanks to a $600,000 federal grant engineered by Congresswoman Maxine Waters of Los Angeles. The refurbished center is named in honor of Reuben Smith, the executive director.

"I went into a coma in 1992 and had brain surgery," explains Smith, a soft-spoken, dignified, and elegantly dressed man with white hair. "I guess people thought I was going to be disabled or wouldn't make it. So they named the building after me."

After almost a week of unconsciousness, he revived and made a complete recovery. The new name remained.

As Smith conducted a tour of the premises, children drifted in, all greeting him as "Mr. Smith." Some played pool; others chose pingpong, video games or computers. The center is open to boys and girls age 5 to 17, 90 percent of whom are residents of public housing. Unlike many other Boys and Girls Clubs, where the membership fee can be fairly steep, at Hunters Point it is $2 per year.

Two of the main activities at the center are academics and athletics. "Since we put up our first two tennis courts in 1987, some of those kids have gotten scholarships to play tennis in college," he says with pride. "Now they tie in tutoring with the tennis, so you encourage these kids to stay in school." The Boys Club and the Youth Tennis Advantage run a joint program, called the Hunters Point Tennis Academy.

Besides its four tennis courts, the center has two basketball courts, a children's playground, a picnic area and a community garden. Inside, the center is primarily one spacious, well-lit game room, with several smaller rooms for the library, tutoring room, kitchen, weight room, and art room. The art program includes watercolor and oil painting, crafts, and special projects such as maskmaking.

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The center serve a snack at 4 p.m., every day that it's open, and holds a birthday party once a month.

Smith, a bachelor, was born in 1933 and grew up in the Upper West Side of New York City. He served in the Army from 1953-55, then moved to Harlem, and in 1963 made a trip to the Bay Area because "I wanted to see what was happening on this side of the world." While seeking a job in San Francisco, he went to the Catholic Youth Organization on Market Street. "They sent me to the Columbia Boys Club on 17th and Guerrero, and they sent me over here," he recalls. "I was the games room director, then the athletic director, then the program director, then became executive director in 1970.

"The neighborhood has really improved over the time I've been here," he remarks. "When I came here, it was all Navy housing. It looked like barracks. The public housing was painted an old-fashioned yellow." But he has always enjoyed life in San Francisco: "Compared to where I came from, this whole thing is a resort -- everything in California."

Because Hunters Point has so few public schools, most local kids are bused out of the neighborhood, frequently all the way across town, and don't get home until 4:30 p.m. As a result, the center is open much later during the school year than it is in the summertime.

Despite the high rate of unemployment, the industrial pollution, and the poverty that characterize much of Hunters Point, Smith says he has never lost his hope for the neighborhood. "If anyone would talk to my mother, she would tell you I was in worse shape than any of these kids that I serve. In my mind, most of these kids, when they become adults, they should be better than me, with all the opportunities they have."

The center is funded partly by private donors and foundations, such as United Way, and partly by the city. But Smith admits: "I am in a survival situation to keep these doors open."

The club's city-funded excursion program is especially popular. "We went to Rollerama in San Mateo last Saturday. Two weeks ago we went to Japantown for bowling. We went to the Exploratorium not long ago, and the Lawrence Hall of Science at UC Berkeley," he notes.

Smith says he chose a career working with kids because "I like to improve the quality of people's lives. But it's not easy. We live in the richest country in the world, but sometimes a place like this is overlooked. . . . These young people are the citizens of tomorrow, and that's all we have. They're going to run the city and run the country, and a lot of people don't realize that."

The center welcomes volunteers. "We don't get a whole lot of them," he admits, "but we can always use them, to help tutor some young people, act like good role models, and go on some of the field trips with us."

If the Club had a bigger budget, says Smith, he would spend the extra money on counseling, "to help kids adjust, and realize who they are and what they are. A lot of people haven't even found their identity yet, and they're adults."

The Hunters Point Boys and Girls Club is open during the school year Tuesday-Friday from 2-8 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. The summer hours are Monday-Friday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and closed on weekends.

The club is now in the process of planning a celebration for its 40th birthday. For more information, or to arrange a visit to the club, call Reuben Smith at 415-822-7140.