The Heights

Heights Boys and Girls Club earns national acclaim, trains Memphis musicians

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At 17 years old, Miracle Diggs is already publishing her own beats and mixing sound for other rappers, poets, and singers. She’s in the studio almost daily and will begin a degree program next fall at Full Sail University in Florida, studying music recording and production.

For now, Diggs’ studio is a state-of-the-art Notes for Notes music lab inside the Ira Samelson Jr. Boys and Girls Club located at 894 Isabelle Street in the heart of The Heights. There, Diggs has access to dozens of musical instruments and instructors to teach them, as well as the professional sound booth and production studio. She’s taken up drums and piano while learning to create her own sound.

“I’ll be dreaming sometimes that there’s an artist in here and we’re working on an album,” said Diggs, sitting in the mixing booth surrounded by monitors and panels of dials and slides and brightly lit buttons. “It keeps me motivated to keep working and don’t really listen to what people have to say if it’s negative.”

She parlayed her experience at the Samelson club into a 2018 summer internship with Memphis Music Initiative where she produced and promoted her own music, and she’s not the only success story. Seven-year-old Yung Hunnid records at the Notes for Notes studio and has been featured on The Ellen Degeneres Show and Showtime at the Apollo.

Keith Blanchard, president and CEO of Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis, said his 20-year career with the organization has shown that offering a chance to discover new interests and opportunities is the most important role any of its locations can play in a child's life. There are over 4,000 clubs nationally and eight in Memphis, as well as a technical training center in South Memphis.

“Exposure is probably the most important thing that we do,” said Blanchard. “Providing kids the opportunity to visit a college campus or tour a job site or interview a senator ... access to technology, computers and the internet ... I’ve seen it time and time again how big of a difference it makes.”

Blanchard said people often perceive the clubs as just a gym but they offer dozens of programs across three core areas  academic success, healthy lifestyles and good character. The Samelson club, in particular, has come a long way from its early days as a boys-only hangout spot where NBA legend Penny Hardaway got homework help and learned to play basketball.

Today it’s a nationally-ranked club that’s more than doubled its attendance in just three years. It also boasts a staff and training program that is the benchmark for Boys and Girls Clubs across the country.

Miracle Biggs works on a new beat sample with friends at the Notes for Notes music studio. (Cole Bradley)

Clubhouse in The Heights

According to Joe Walk’s "History of Highland Heights", the Samelson club was a YMCA until 1979 when it was purchased by what was then Boys Clubs of America.

The club is open from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and serves youth from kindergarten to 12th grade. It offers tutoring and homework assistance, nutrition programs, a robotics club, financial literacy courses, a workout room and sports leagues, and the Keystone civics club where students participate in service projects like cheerleading at the St. Jude Marathon, visiting the elderly, and leading neighborhood clean ups.

“We want to make sure they’re well-rounded and remember to give back,” said Gwendolyn Woods, director of the Samelson club.

The music studio was installed two years ago in partnership with Notes for Notes, a nonprofit that’s launched similar studios on other music-centric cities across the country including Nashville, Detroit, Austin and Atlanta. Notes for Notes built the studio and supplies both the equipment and a staff member to work with kids five days a week.

It’s since become a cornerstone program at the Samelson club. In March, the studio announced a partnership with Hattiloo Theatre for vocal training and acting which they hope will result in the Samelson club’s first musical stage production.

Related: “Free recording and production studio trains young Memphis musicians

“If they’re having a bad day and they want to write something down and go in there and record, then it’s just a positive place to just release some of the daily frustrations that kids go through,” said Woods of the Notes for Notes studio.

Boys and Girls Clubs are also safe spaces for kids to go after school and during the summer that are especially important in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty, crime and gang activity. While the Heights is overall a working class, family-friendly area, according to PolicyMap, its poverty rate sits at 32 percent and it struggles with a large number of blighted properties that contribute to criminal activity, primarily property crimes like theft and vandalism.

“There’s no better way to fight poverty and fight crime than through education and with programs like [ours],” said Blanchard.

Related: “Facts and Feelings: The push to improve safety in The Heights

Though all Boys and Girls Clubs are open to any club member regardless of where they live, the majority of the Samelson club kids walk to the club after school from Aurora Collegiate Academy located next door and Treadwell Elementary and Middle schools a few blocks away. Most of the teens attend Kingsbury and Douglas high schools.

“Some kids might not get to eat at home, but they know when they come to the Boys and Girls Club they’re going to get at least two meals, a snack at 4 o’clock and at 6 o’clock they’re going to get dinner,” said Woods. “That helps the parent out because they don’t have to struggle or worry about how they’re going to feed their child today.”

Club members line up for a healthy snack each day at 4 p.m. (Cole Bradley)

From Struggle to Success

Samelson is a thriving center with more than 160 youth attending daily, but three years ago it was one of the lowest performing clubs in the city with only 70 daily participants.

Blanchard said the transformation can largely be attributed to Woods, who joined the club as director three years ago, and a new team of innovative and passionate staff members.

“I think what made that [club] successful was the club leader is fantastic, the team that we’ve assembled over there, and basically we’re trying to replicate that model across the country now,” said Blanchard.

The organization’s data shows that the Samelson club is now Memphis’ top performing Boys & Girls Clubs in terms of program participation and satisfaction among both staff and client families, and in-depth training and staff development have been core to the success. The Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis now trains all new staff under Woods and her team before assigning them a permanent location.

In 2017, staff from Boys and Girls Clubs of America visited the Samelson club to study the training program and film a series of videos which are now used to train staff at a national level.

Woods said that in addition to better training and new programs like the music studio, the Samelson club’s success also comes from an effort to engage the Latino residents who make up at least a third of the neighborhood based on the demographics of area schools.

Soon after arriving, Woods hired the club’s first Spanish-speaking staff members.

“We were able to reduce barriers with parents who didn’t quite speak the language and they felt more comfortable enrolling their kids,” she said. The staffers also help Spanish-speaking kids fully participate in the programming.

Woods grew up in Memphis and faced challenges she knows many of the Samelson club clients face, including poverty and being raised by a single mother after her father died of cancer. She said she is a success today because she had mentors, like those at the club, who encouraged her to pursue her dreams and go to college.

“Not only am I telling [the kids] that this can be a path, I’m a living example of what places like Boys and Girls Clubs and people that really care and programs that really impact lives and build people up [can do],” she said.

Across the city, the impact of Boys and Girls Clubs is impressive. According to Blanchard, the club serves 5,000 youth and has a 100 percent high school graduation rate for its club members. Shelby County’s graduation rate for 2017 was 79.6 percent.

The organization launched a workforce development Technology Training Center at 903 Walker Avenue roughly three years ago. It now serves almost 500 kids annually from across the city and has a 100 percent post-program placement rate into a career, college or the military. Youth can earn certificates in welding, IT, logistics, culinary arts, and automotives, and some graduates are now making more than $30 an hour as professional tradespeople.

Blanchard said a next step for the citywide organization is a new STEM lab that will be built in 2019 in partnership with Disney using proceeds from its blockbuster, “Black Panther.”

Woods said the next step for the Samelson club is deeper community engagement through new partnerships with schools and community organizations and surveying residents to see what programs the club should develop next. She also said volunteers are critical to the organization, but first the club needs to build awareness of their vast array of offerings so people know what’s needed.

“In order for us to continue to make improvements, we need support,” said Woods. “[People are] not aware that we are having fun but we also have things in place that are helping the kids learn life skills that will go far beyond the Boys and Girls Club.”
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.