When the young members of the Town Boys & Girls Club gather today with their parents and the club’s staff for the annual Christmas party, they’ll enjoy a homemade dinner and a visit from Santa Claus toting gifts for all the kids.
“Just to see the looks on the kids’ faces when they see Santa Claus actually walk in the door, and they each receive a gift, it’s a magical time for all of us,” said Assistant Director Chris Hochulski.
And the festivities’ centerpiece will be a majestic 40-foot-tall blue spruce, cut down and transported from the Franklinville property of Robert “BobKat”Nowak, longtime director of the Boys and Girls Club of the Northtowns.
“I would say 60 to 70 percent of my kids have never seen a real Christmas tree,” said Nowak. “They grew up with artificial. It’s a centerpiece. It’s decorated by the kids. It looks like Christmas.”
The club, built in 1920 on the Town of Tonawanda side of the border with Buffalo, is an after-school refuge for a daily average of 200 kids and teens who mostly attend the Charter School for Applied Technologies, Holmes Elementary School and Kenmore Middle School.
There’s a dedicated “homework hour” but also free time to explore the club’s many amenities, including table games, sports, computers, and arts and crafts. After school each day from 3 to 8 p.m., the club is a whirlwind of youthful exuberance.
“I like to paint rainbows,” charter school student Annabell Clark, 6, said when asked to name her favorite club activity. And, sure enough, an hour later she was busy in the club’s new “little kids’ room,” picking a rainbow of crayons from a box.
But many of the members’ families struggle with unemployment, upheaval and economic uncertainty, which makes it difficult for parents to provide their children with gifts, Hochulski said. Many members live in the Old Town neighborhood, which has lower income levels and higher rates of poverty than the rest of the town. Some kids even struggle to pay the club’s $50 membership fee, which is sometimes reduced or waived.
“Some of them know they’re not going to have the best Christmas,” she said.
The club is one of the agencies participating in the Western New York Holiday Partnership and The News Neediest Fund, which accepts toys and cash donations to provide holiday meals and gifts for families.
“That relationship has really bloomed,” said Nowak. “Obviously, we have lots of parents in the Neediest Fund. We’re lucky enough to be a sponsor.”
Many applicants to the fund are former members of the club, Nowak said, while noting he’s seen an increase in the number of applicants who are single fathers.
“We try to make them feel not needy but just like they’re in a little slump and need a little help this Christmas,” Nowak said
But no child will be left wanting today as more than 200 people gather in the club’s open first-floor room under BobKat’s towering tree and enjoy a meal provided by the club’s board of directors. It’s a tradition Nowak has enjoyed in each of his 44 years with the club.
“The next day they’re here again,” said Nowak. “So you get to see the thank-yous, the hugs and everything else that goes with it. I couldn’t be happier to do this every year.”