By Monique A. LeBleu

There are not many sounds more beautiful than that of children at play – the squeak of their shoes on the gym floor, the ring of the bouncing dodge ball, the call outs to their friends, the general frolic, and most especially, the laughter. The Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Desert, in addition to this musical din, greets its guests with rows of backpacks on hooks, umbrellas and coats stacked by the floorboards, and children at play scuttling from the gym to craft and study rooms upstairs, or into the welcoming arms of club “Momma” / Executive Director, Mikayla Rhoades.

Rhoades, after earning her Liberal Arts AA degree, came to the club at the age of 22 for a job as a staffer after a parent became afflicted with dementia. She has been with the club for three years and is concurrently seeking a bachelor’s in public relations.

A new recipient of the 2023 “Supporting Small Businesses That Hire People with Disabilities” grant, the facility will now be able to hire additional staff to help with a variety of duties. “[The grant award] is something brand new to us,” said Rhoades. “Not because we haven’t been hiring people with disabilities, but because this is, I believe, a new grant system that has come out. It piqued my eyes when I saw it, so we applied for it.”

The grant award, provided by professional speaker and autism self-advocate, Dr. Kerry Margo Ed. D, will help her to provide at least two additional part-time staff members at the club. Since becoming Executive Director, Rhoades shared that she has been able to hire at least four staff members who have some form of disability, whether it is mental or physical.

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“She (Dr. Kerry Margo) supports hiring people with Autism and disabilities,” said Rhoades. “We, at the Boys & Girls Club, partner with Yucca Valley High School. Teens who qualify for their resource program might be on the Autism spectrum, have a smaller resource development issue such as a astigmatism, or they don’t understand math as well as other students; these kids get a first paid look at what a job would be like, and we provide that job for them.”

Such jobs involve shadowing the club’s Youth Development Professionals, who may be in-house hires who are people with disabilities. They also help distribute snacks, watch the children, and see that kids are supervised, help with crafts, clean up, and any general kind of duties that need to be done.

“This shows them how to communicate better, whether that’s with their supervisor, a staff member, or with the kids,” said Rhoades. “It teaches them how to speak up for themselves, how to manage time, and teaches them a work ethic that they might not have been exposed to before they came to us.”

The club receives kids from a variety of households with different stages of need. From single-parent households to foster agencies and foster parents. The club provides programs before and after school so that a working parent, who either can’t get their kids to school before or able to pick them up immediately after, has a secure and nurturing place to take their kids, especially kids with special needs.

“68% of our kids are from single-parent homes or foster parent homes. 100% of our kids qualify for free lunch or are from low-income households. This is considered a low-income community, so we can get lunch, a significant meal, donated.”

The club program is Monday through Friday, serving ages 5 – 18, with a morning program from 6 – 9 a.m. and an afternoon program between 2 – 6 p.m. Buses bring children to school from the Boys and Girls Club in the morning and back to the club after school, and serve Yucca Mesa, Yucca Valley, Onaga, Friendly Hills, and Joshua Tree Elementary schools, as well the Yucca Valley High and La Contenta Middle Schools. The club provides a full day schedule on holidays when parents may not have the day off. Parents who apply and qualify can bring their kids in the early morning before classes start to participate in tutoring or other programs.

All the programs provided for these kids stem from the five core key elements of the club: Sports and recreation, health and wellness, the arts, character and leadership development, and workforce readiness. They provide tutoring and homework help in the Project Learn Center upstairs. The center sometimes faces up to 30 students at a time in need of homework assistance, so the club encourages volunteerism for such programs and for tutoring in a specific curriculum, such as math. Volunteers who wish to apply should be at least 17 years or older and allow for a background check before volunteering, and should be passionate about the job.

The club also has special events, such as the Halloween “Trunk or Treat” in October where as many as 50 volunteer trunks parked in the lots to give out candy to hundreds of trick or treating families. Well-attended by both “trunkers” as well as “treaters,” the club receives donations and donated candy from local groups, churches, businesses, and board members, often months in advance—as early as August and September—to fill any gaps, keeping the popular event open longer.

“That was one of our best [events],” said Rhoades of the 2022 event. “My hope was that we would give parents a safe place where they knew they could come, have fun, and not have to worry about what door they were knocking on. It’s hard for parents to find good places where they can take their kids for free, where it’s safe.”

The town of Yucca Valley rents the field space for their basketball program annually, but after that season, in April, Rhoades plans to begin holding a free, monthly, family movie nights with a large outdoor screen made.

The club also provides spring break camps and a summer camp as well, providing the same lunch and snacks that they offer every day. To apply, parents complete a membership form. Services are $40 a week for the first child and $35 per additional child per family, which includes the morning program, the after-school program, all of the meals, and tutoring.

Aside from what she’s learned while working at the club with her family of staff around her, Rhoades said she learns more every day directly from the kids themselves. “Sometimes it’s as simple as how to handle a bad day,” she said. “I think as adults, we decide that our bad days are going to last so much longer than that day. A kid will come up and just say, ‘Oh well, let’s go play ball,” or, “Let me just give you a hug.” To them, basketball or a hug makes everything better for 15 minutes. Sometimes we don’t realize that that a game of basketball or a hug may be just the 15 minutes we need in a bad moment.”

“We have eight people running this ship and we have a wonderful interactive and supportive board,” chimed Rhoades. “Our team is awesome here. We have a very small group of individuals who are very passionate about helping kids and families in this community. They take the lower-paying jobs so that they can do something bigger and make more of an impact. They really are significant in making a difference. We get 140 hours with every child once a month. Of that 140 hours, we get to make an impact, and my staff does not waste it.”

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