BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Editors Note: What shapes Chicago’s women’s boards and makes them forces for change? A culture of commitment, founding leaders and current activists, mutual passions for rolling up sleeves to get the job done, and iconic funding niches are but a few we’ve discovered.
The Boys & Girls Club of Chicago has the longest serving child development woman’s board in Chicago, making it a shining example of the first focus in this ongoing series.
Charlene Huang Olson, President of the Woman’s Board of the Boys & Girls Club of Chicago, plans to honor a group she calls “The Magnificent Seven” at next year’s Mirror Ball on June 7, the occasion of the board’s 70th anniversary. Held at the Hilton Chicago, Nancy Santi and Barbara Speer will serve as co-chairs.
Renee Crown, board member for 48 years, leads the list in years of service, with six others—Linda Gantz, Ellen O’Connor, Barbara Pearlman, Bonnie Stearns, Jocelyn Stoller, and Liz Stiffel—who have all been on the board for 30-plus years. Linda Gantz and her husband, Bill, were joined recently by 100 other celebrators at the organization’s newest club, located in Lakeview, named in their honor. It plans to serve over 600 youths in its first year.
Two of the “Magificent Seven” shared memories of the Woman’s Board. Ellen spoke of her first memories:
“When I was asked to join the Boys Club Woman’s Board, the request came at a very significant time in my life. Our second child, a son, John died in an accident on his eighth grade graduation trip. Up until that time, my volunteer energies had been directed solely toward activities that involved my four young children.
“Losing John resulted in a void that could never really be filled but an invitation to be a part of an organization that cared for and offered help and a safe haven to boys his age appealed greatly to me, and I accepted the invitation to be a part of what was then just The Boys Clubs of Chicago.
Over these many years of involvement, I have made lasting friendships and contacts with many strong women I might never have encountered. My forty some years on the board have enriched me immensely, and I will be forever grateful for the original invitation that came at such a crucial time in my own life.”
Jocelyn Stoller, who says that board members have been her good friends for 37 years, continues to apply dazzling energy to the annual gala:
“Many years ago, when there was much social press, I was Ball Chair, and the event was celebrated in the papers. One day I went to my garage to get my car, and the manager handed me an envelope. He told me that he and the people who worked there were very proud of me for volunteering for the Boys & Girls Club, and inside the envelope I would find that they had all pitched in to make a donation. He related that he, and a number of others working there, had grown up in the clubs—before they had joined they didn’t even have money to buy a toothbrush.”
Charlene told shared a little of the group’s history:
“BGCC was founded in 1902. The Woman’s Board was established in 1949, and we currently have 54 board members. The mission of Boys and Girls Clubs is to enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.
“Serving youths ages six to 18, BGCC works to provide members with the emotional, educational, physical, and cultural resources that allow them to enjoy their childhood and eventually thrive in adulthood. At our clubs, they find caring mentors, avenues of opportunity, and the tools they need to prepare for great futures.
“President of BGCC, Mimi LeClair, captures this essence of BGCC well when she says, ‘Of all the things we do well at BGCC, perhaps the thing that we do the best is give our kids hope.’ ”
Mimi LeClair told us recently:
“Children have said that we have changed their lives. Some youth organizations are transactional in nature: kids take a karate lesson and then go home. We offer a robust curriculum with academics such as STEM classes, but our hallmark is that we work on character and relationships.
“We also teach the joy of giving back and teach that everyone has gifts to give. Each of our 20,000 kids, who are members in our 23 clubs in the city and suburbs, are greeted by their name and asked how their day is going. If we notice that someone isn’t coming as regularly, we call to say that we miss them, adding please come back. Kids are courted by gangs, and this is definitely countered by the sense of belonging that our clubs provide.
“Some of our teenage boys like the tough guy bravado, but the minute they enter the club, they let their guard down and can even be silly. Kids are susceptible to mentoring—they don’t look at our adults with suspicion. They are so quick to forgive and welcome a hug.
“The members of the Woman’s Board help to fulfill this mission by working together as a full board to organize and ensure the success of our annual summer ball, BGCC’s largest fundraising event.”
We asked Charlene to tell us more about their work, their legacy, and how she got her start.
What do kids discover when they join one of the 23 clubs?
Boys & Girls Clubs are a safe place for kids that are supervised by professional staff who serve as role models and mentors. The clubs offer a wide variety of fun, engaging, and educational programs to meet the needs of various ages and interests, such as leadership development and volunteering opportunities, homework help, computers, games, sports, dance, swimming, photography, arts and crafts, discussion groups, college prep, youth employment, movie making, and delinquency prevention.
Boys & Girls Clubs are dedicated facilities that are especially designed for young people up to the age of 18. As a result, young people find a unique sense of belonging at the club.
The clubs are open every day after school and are supervised by trained youth development professionals and not just volunteers, offering a wide variety of programs that build character, enhance education, cultivate creativity, encourage fitness and teamwork, and teach important life skills. This gives young people opportunity to choose from a variety of activities.
What’s more is that we’re affordable for all youth at only $20 a year. Parents and families feel supported knowing their children are safe and in an environment that nurtures their interests and supports their futures.
How did you first get involved?
I had been invited over the years to attend the BGCC summer ball by Beth White. She and Jacky Ferro, both past Woman’s Board presidents, continued to invite me to events held at the clubs. I’ve also known Mimi Murley for years through our volunteer work for Princeton. We ended up chairing the summer ball together in 2016! It is an honor to be part of a board with so many distinguished members in the world of Chicago philanthropy and civic service.
It takes clear leadership to run a hands-on woman’s board with the size and longevity of the BGCC. What is your definition of leadership?
Leadership is about mutual respect: working with and listening to those who serve together with you to support the organization. There are a number of women who have been on our Woman’s Board for over 20 years, including past presidents. I respect their experience, their stories of service, and am inspired by their spirit. As a woman’s board, there is something special about the collective power of women in how we care and serve the boys and girls in our Chicagoland community. We are also very fortunate to have the strong leadership of our BGCC president, Mimi LeClair, and tremendous partnership with BGCC Corporate Board Chair, Bart McCartin.
Describe the functioning of your board.
At my first meeting as president in September, we had what I called a ‘queen’s table’ with the 36 members present all around it. I asked them to give one sentence about why they were involved with the board, and I have never heard such an outpouring of love, both for the clubs and their colleagues on the board. We are board with several mothers and their daughters who are both serving.
I couldn’t help but give thanks for the collective power of women around that table. I thought of the special care women give to help our children in the programs, maybe because they are mothers themselves. Hope and a safe place to go are the two key things that the Boys & Girls Clubs deliver, and we find several ways to deliver. Our gala raises over $1.3 million to fund club programs.
What do you think is the legacy of women’s boards in Chicago?
Women’s boards have been a force in the community—the collective power of dedicated women with a commitment to service and a focus on making Chicago a better and stronger place for all. Women’s boards serve with special care and understanding—with a passion for identifying needs and raising awareness. Women’s boards can also be very hands-on, enabling board members to make direct and heartfelt contributions and connections to the beneficiaries of the organizations they serve.
What are some of your current projects?
The key to the longevity and vitality of the board is the hands-on nature of its work. Kim White and Susan Lenny head the Share Chicago Program that most recently took a group of children enrolled in their clubs to PAWS, where they learned about spaying and neutering pets and had lots of puppy playtime. Other trips that Women’s Board members coordinate and attend include visits to the Chicago Children’s Museum, the Chicago History Museum, the Lyric Opera, WTTW, and cooking classes at the Palmer House and Hilton to name just a few.
Kim told us more about Share Chicago:
“Every time we meet with the kids, we all are amazed with their curiosity and appreciation for what they’re seeing. Their world often is limited to a one or two mile radius around their homes. Seeing Lake Michigan for the first time, one child asked if it was an ocean.
“Taking a group to City Hall, we had to go up an elevator to the Mayor’s office—two girls were giggling in the back because they had never ridden in an elevator. Broadening horizons doesn’t even begin to explain what many of these kids get out of the trips. What we take for granted, these kids are in awe.
“It’s a win-win situation for the kids and the Woman’s Board – Share Chicago puts a face to our fund-raising efforts, while the kids get to see beyond their neighborhoods. Promise, dreams, college, careers — it all begins to make sense to the kids when they actually see more of the world.”
Karen Gray-Krehbiel chairs the Woman’s Board’s scholarship committee. The committee reviews applications and interviews BGCC youth candidates for scholarship opportunities as they prepare to leave for college. Typically, five scholarships are awarded each year at $5,000, and one Ann Milligan Gray Scholarship is awarded for $25,000.
For Charlene, a Navy Pier event has particular appeal:
“A member of the Women’s Board serves as one of the four judges for the Youth of the Year Award, an amazing event where youths from a variety of our clubs speak on the stage at Navy Pier to a huge audience often about the challenges in their lives. What presence they have.”
At BGCC each individual and support group works closely together to insure its mission is translated to each of its 20,000 members. As Mimi LeClair has said:
“I am blessed to be in the middle between our youth who should be regarded as our world’s greatest resource and our friends who offer their time and treasure. Our club members ask so little of us, if we don’t get it right, it is a great loss. If kids are allowed to do what they are good at, their lives will really take off in a most positive manner.”
To learn more about the organization, visit bgcc.org.