Klondike Smokey City

40-year-old Boys & Girls Club swells with the Klondike Smokey City neighborhood

“For some, I am the only man that they see all day,” said Ron Nelson, director of the John Dustin Buckman Boys & Girls Club. “I use the same way I grew up to raise these kids. The only way I knew was church, school and discipline.”

Ron Nelson, a native of the former Dixie Homes public housing complex, knows a thing or two about raising children though, biologically, he doesn’t have any.

With 100 children flocking daily to the John Dustin Buckman Boys & Girls Club in the Klondike community, he finds himself fulfilling numerous roles as father, mother, mentor, teacher, friend, guide and even cheerleader.

“For some, I am the only man that they see all day,” Nelson said. “I use the same way I grew up to raise these kids. The only way I knew was church, school and discipline.”

For the last three years, Nelson, 47, has served as club director of the John Dustin Buckman Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis. Coupled with the nine years he worked as a program director for the club, he’s seen everything from poverty to deaths, gangs, crime and hopelessness.

Nelson, the enthusiastic, energetic, playful, yet stern director, is optimistic and dedicated to supporting and guiding the children who come to the center.

Kids at the John Dustin Buckman Boys & Girls Club's learning center work on their homework.

Nelson said most of the children he works with enroll and graduate from technical school or obtain two-year or four-year degrees once they achieve high school graduation.

“The majority of them make productive citizens, about 75 to 80 percent,” he said.

For Nelson, the day begins at noon, and the children come in to the facility at 1100 Vollintine Ave. after school around 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.

“We greet them as they come in, serve a snack and then they split off and go to different areas of the center,” Nelson said.

Children can engage with a computer lab, a learning center in which students can do homework, arts and crafts activities and reading centers. There is also a playground area and basketball court.

Smokey City resident Gregory King, 12, goes to the club daily and stays until it closes. King is an A and B student in the sixth grade at Humes Preparatory Academy. He’s been coming to the club for four years and said he wants to be a professional basketball player or a scientist.

Jasmine Craig helps Alexis Dorse, 7, with her math homework at the John Dustin Buckman Boys & Girls Club's learning center.

“I’ve been coming to the club since I was 8. I like the sports,” said King, who plays small forward on the basketball team and quarterback and wide receiver on the football team.

King’s team, who plays others within the Boys & Girls Club network, came in third during football tournament play.

The 40-year-old mainstay opened its doors in May 1976, and the Boys & Girls club has grown to meet the community’s unique needs.

In addition to the learning centers, hands-on and interactive programs are also available. Some of those programs include Street Smart, which helps teens with coping skills against drugs, violence and gangs. Smart Girls is a program that teaches girls how to be young ladies. It is sponsored through the Step Ahead Foundation, which helps teens with controlling pregnancy and promoting abstinence. Passport to Manhood is a program that promotes the education and nurturing of young boys to young men.

Nelson sees the organization folding in services that support parents as well as children. For example, SunTrust Bank offers a program for money management and handling finances.

Klondike resident Melissa Miller has a daughter, Myeshia, 13, and a son Ricky, 17, who both participate on a regular basis at the club since she moved to the neighborhood from Covington in 2010. 

Khylan Boyd, 12, works on his free throws while practicing with the All Stars basketball team at the John Dustin Buckman Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

“I love the Boys & Girls Club and it keeps my kids out of trouble,” Miller said. “I try to keep them doing something positive.”

As a single mother, the club allows Miller, 41, the assurance that her children are in a safe environment despite her demanding schedule as a custodian and monitor at Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School, she said.

“Ron (Nelson) is a good mentor for the young guys and he really helps me with my son,” Miller said.  “They always help me out for Christmas and in the summertime when they go camping.”

During the summer months, the club can serve as many as 200 children daily. In June this year, 18 girls and 18 boys will descend on Camp Phoenix on Sardis Lake in Como, Mississippi. The annual trip is a favored tradition that’s been around for decades, Nelson said.

Nelson loves his job and feels he is perfectly suited for his position, given his background.

“I started going to the boys club in Dixie Homes when I was 6 going on 7,” he said explaining that it was only a boys club then.

But when his mom started working for the Defense Depot of Memphis, he spent his time at his grandmother’s house on Crockett Street in Klondike on Saturdays.

Kids on the All Stars basketball team practice at the John Dustin Buckman Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis.

“The guys I hung out with were all coming to the Boys & Girls Club, so I joined for the $2 membership to be with them.”

After the Dixie Homes community was demolished in the early 2000s, Nelson started visiting the Boys & Girls Club in Klondike on a regular basis.

Nelson oversees a budget of $400,000 and manages a staff of four in addition to two young men, 14-years-old and 15-years-old, who are called job seekers and receive a stipend as well as on-the- job training.

Nelson attended Memphis Technical School and graduated in 1988 from East High School.  After graduating from LeMoyne-Owen College with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Nelson was undecided about his future.

He recalled that mentors in his church encouraged him to work with children. He worked as an educational assistant for the Memphis City Schools where he worked in both administration and elementary school classrooms.

Kids at the John Dustin Buckman Boys & Girls Club learning center work on their homework.

Nelson’s dedication to children in the neighborhood has been marked by occasional despair.

One of Nelson’s most memorable situations was the death of 15-year-old Eric who was riding a moped without a helmet and died after being hit by a car.

“I had known Eric ever since he was 9. It was Father’s Day two years ago. We closed the club down so that everyone could attend the funeral,” Nelson said.

Then there was a young girl who was shot and killed near Humes Preparatory School during a random act of violence. In both cases, his most painful job was telling the children at the club about their deceased peers.

But despite the traumas, life’s foibles and unpredictable twists and turns, Nelson is undaunted, when it comes to “his” kids. 

“This is a safe place for kids in the United States. No crime, crime free, and a place where kids come and have fun.”

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Read more articles by Thelma Balfour.

Thelma Balfour has been a freelance writer for USA Today and Newsweek. She also worked as a reporter for The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis. She is the author of two books, Black Sun Signs: An African American Guide to the Zodiac and Black Love Signs.