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My Turn: At the Boys & Girls Club, I’m giving back (or at least trying to)

Every Wednesday, I volunteer at the Concord Boys and Girls Club where I work with the teens who have been nominated for Youth of the Year. Together, we work on assembling their application packages, a large component of which is the essay they must write, and the speech they must prepare, to tell their “story.”

Every kid at the Boys and Girls Club has a story. I am constantly impressed with how forthcoming they are, until I remember that many of them have dealt with harder things than giving a speech: empty homes, family strife, cruel classmates.

Our process is a kind of mirroring: They tell me their stories, I tell them back. We develop an essay and speech format from this, then cut and shape until they are satisfied with a presentation that will allow them to disclose without over-revealing.

This work moves slowly, but the transformation is unmistakable. Last year, they spoke like professionals, and the local winner was this close to winning the regional competition.

Recently, I was asked to talk about this process at a club “Discovery Hour,” a gathering of community members who have been invited to learn about the club and the kids who go there.

There is an expression: Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. I am one who can’t. Few things are as hard for me as public speaking. My work with the kids is successful because I approach my task not from the perspective of an experienced speaker, but from that of an audience member. I tell the kids where they are rambling, where they may be vague or how they can better engage people in the audience who could be making important decisions – to bestow an award, to donate to the club.

But, talk about this? Oh, I think not, was my first reaction. But, I’ve been smitten with the Boys and Girls Club since I walked through the doors a year ago and was met by a waist-high boy who asked how he could help me.

After I accepted the speaking invitation, I went to work on a speech. Here were the high points:

“Even when they come in as very young children, members learn to manage their lives, resolve a conflict, solve a problem, communicate – whether to express an idea in a group, or deal with a difficult classmate.

“When kids come into the club, they are directed toward activities and opportunities that will bring out their best skills and show them how to give back – from club sponsored leadership programs, to fund raisers and outreach in the community.

“Kids I have met at Boys and Girls refer to the club as a family – in which, every day, they find support and guidance and encouragement.

“It benefits us as a community when member after member leaves the club prepared to contribute effectively in life beyond the club.

And my favorite line:

“Not only ‘Great Futures’ start there, great people do. Consider how you can help.”

My speech was polished, compelling and succinct. When the moment came for me to present “the story of the stories,” I offered a standard opening, introduced myself, thanked our hosts, and began. “Tonight I would like to . . .”

And forgot the rest.

Those who can’t . . . do this.

It makes sense. I’m a writer and spend most of my time drafting and editing words until they’re strong and clear. It’s tough for many writers to sit there fireside, foot resting upon a knee, and nonchalantly deliver a whole speech off the top of their heads with no opportunity to make those words shine.

I was able to dog paddle through the high points but when it was over, I began to revisit my credentials as a speech coach. Eventually, however, I realized that as readers improve a writer’s work, so do listeners improve a speaker’s speech. My “nominees” will always tell their stories with poise, because as long as they’ll have me, I’ll be listening and editing and shoring them up until like strong, clear words, they shine.

I returned to the club that week with a new appreciation for how hard their story task is, and greater respect for their willingness to do it anyway. I realized that leaving my comfort zone was an attempt to step into their shoes, however unsteadily, to say “thank you.”

Thank you, kids, for turning your lives around and entrusting the club to help you onto a productive path. Thank you for mentoring others and giving what you can to those who are less fortunate. Thank you for being so happily surprised by your own abilities.

Thank you, club, for rescuing deserving kids; urging quiet ones from the shadows and helping aimless ones find purpose. Thank you for keeping the lonely ones out of empty homes, even as you struggle to keep your buses running.

Those who can, do. And as I’ve demonstrated, even those who can’t, try.

How can you help?

(Susan Bonifant lives in Hopkinton. Read her blog, “Worth Mentioning,” at atticview.blogspot.com)

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