CHAMPAIGN — In his first weeks of leading the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club, Sam Banks is thinking a lot about rebuilding connections.
This Champaign agency serving local kids needs a strong link to the local community and "we've lost some of that," he says.
"We need to connect our mission with the hearts of those out there who care about kids," Banks says. "We need to rebuild opportunities to get people involved."
If anyone is a master at that, it's Banks, according to those who know him.
Banks took over July 1 as executive director of the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club, an agency devoted to improving and inspiring the lives of children since its 1968 start in Champaign.
While he came to the club job after serving several years as CEO of the Glenwood Academy, a Chicago-area boarding school for disadvantaged children, Banks wasn't a newcomer to Champaign-Urbana.
He also served for a decade as CEO of the Cunningham Children's Home in Urbana until 2008, and kept his home and contacts in Champaign during his Glenwood Academy years.
Banks' positive, upbeat attitude and people skills made him a valued leader at the Glenwood Academy, says that school's board chairman, Craig Stern.
"The Boys & Girls Club in Champaign is very lucky to have him," Stern says.
Banks spent a lot of time speaking and making contacts in the community in his years at the Glenwood Academy, and he was very good working with the board and donors, Stern says.
Under his leadership, a Thanksgiving fundraising event that once yielded about $35,000 for the school brought in $750,000, Stern says.
Banks was also very adept at making tough decisions when the school faced tough financial times, Stern says. The academy is now in the midst of a consolidation Banks initiated.
"He is a great guy, a real easy person to be around," Stern says.
Banks says he hopes to make one message clear to the community from the start.
While the club has been focused on youths in about a 2-mile radius of the 201 E. Park St., C, facility, it isn't exclusive to the neighborhood. It's there for all kids.
"I just want the community to know the club is here for any kid who wants to be here," he says.
Just a year ago, the club was going through a rocky transition. Four board members had resigned, and mounting financial stresses forced budget and staff cuts that resulted in serving fewer kids, but it has allowed the club to pay down debt and get on more solid footing.
Banks says he hopes to boost attendance at the club, though he knows it will be a challenge with the current building, budget constraints and transportation services cut to save money.
Club leaders expected 50 kids for the summer program, and 85 kids attended, Banks says. About 85-100 kids are expected to arrive for the after-school program starting in the fall, he says, and he'd like to boost attendance back up to about 150 kids a day, where it was before budget cuts.
But he looks around the building and wonders, even if the budget can accommodate growth so more kids can attend, "where do we put them?"
One building is now housing the pared-down attendance for older and younger kids, since the club discontinued its second location for younger children at First Presbyterian Church in Champaign to save money. There were 60 children in that program, Banks says.
The East Park Street building also needs attention: roof replacement, ceiling repairs and a new gym floor, because the current one is buckling, Banks says.
It's his dream to one day have outdoor sports and play space for the kids, he says.
"I would welcome the opportunity to work with the community to do some strategic planning," he adds.
The club's budget, which is mostly funded through private contributions (some of which are funneled through the United Way of Champaign County) is going to be in the $800,000 range for 2012-2013 year that started July 1, Banks says. The budget hasn't been finalized yet, because the club board waited for him to arrive and have some time on the job, he says.
Banks says one of his major goals to make the club financially sustainable is to increase and establish consistent individual annual giving. The club has about 500 active individual donors now, he says, and it's critical to increase that to 1,500 or more.
To improve connections between the club and the community, Banks says, he hopes to increase community events and opportunities to volunteer and mentor.
He also wants to find ways to let the community know about the number of young people who have been successfully changed by the club and gone on to lead successful lives, he says.
Banks says he also plans to build strong relationships between the club with local schools and the University of Illinois and widen his contacts with local businesses, he says.
Banks already serves on the Busey Bank board of directors, and its community reinvestment board, and says he plans to rejoin a local Rotary Club.
One idea he shares: Finding 12 businesses each willing to sponsor a monthly, fun, learning activity for Don Moyer club kids, with the employees of each business interacting with the kids.
"If we did that once a month, could you imagine that?" Banks asks with a smile.
Slow growth planned
Club board Chairman Mark Ritz says the club is in better shape financially than it has been in years, and there's even money in the budget for a new gym roof and building maintenance.
"That has a lot to do with the fact that we had to shrink and not serve as many kids, but the good news is we're on the upswing," he says.
The board is guiding this club on a path of slow growth, so it doesn't become overextended, he says.
Ritz says the club hasn't been in a position to take on a capital campaign for a new building, but a future possibility exists for exploring the partnership it had in the past for shared facilities.
The board would also like to restore at least some transportation service to increase attendance, Ritz says, and wants to increase teen participation.
"The Teen REACH programs are very valuable. To me that is a core part of the club we want to strengthen. I just think those are the kids that are most vulnerable in our community, and they need the most guidance as they are approaching adulthood," Ritz adds.
In all, Ritz says he's optimistic the club is in a good position, with new board members set to be appointed this month and Banks on board.
Banks is so well-known in the community and good at building relationships, he says.
"You can't go out to lunch with him, without three or four people coming up and saying 'Hi' to him," he says.
Means a lot
Sharva Hampton-Campbell of Champaign says this club has meant a lot to her and her three foster daughters, who are 12, 13 and 15.
They've gone to the summer and school-year programs, and have been mentored, supported and inspired by those programs and the club staff, she says.
Plus, she says, the club has given her a lot of support she's needed as a working parent.
Her oldest girl has gotten to use her creative writing skills, and her younger two have gotten academic enrichment they needed, she says, and the staff "has consistently made it fun for them."
"That is so helpful, because they're at an age when leaving them home (after school) is not enough. I'm not a believer in latchkey kids," she says.
Her girls even got a chance to help plan a special event and their ideas were heard and used, "and they felt really good," she says.
The club tolerates only appropriate behavior, but when discipline issues arise, Hampton-Campbell says, parents and staff work them out together and kids are never labeled.
"With so many changes happening at the club, I think so many parents think the club is not a good resource or the bad kids go there and that is not true," she says. "My girls can tell you they love it there and why they love it there. They have a voice. They're listened to."