Foundations for better futures

Story by Martha Landry, Currents Editor

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The UW-Eau Claire “bubble” is an easy place to get stuck as a college student. Branching out and forming a connection with the community of Eau Claire is something students frequently miss out on.

Joining churches, organizations or reading the news are some ways that students can invest their time to further relate themselves to the city.

Volunteering at The Boys & Girls Club Mary Markquart Center is a different way that many Blugolds have been able to form their connections to the city. The club located on Lake Street, downtown, has been in Eau Claire since 2004 and university student involvement has been key since the very beginning.

Tracey Smiskey, chief development director said the club wouldn’t be able to excel like it has without student support.

In the past year, Smiskey said the club had over 500 volunteers, most of whom volunteered on multiple occasions. Smiskey estimated around 70 percent of them were Eau Claire college students.

“There is no way we would be able to serve the thousands of kids without the volunteer support that we have,” Smiskey said.
“We have a $600,000 budget we need to raise … and we have very limited amounts of staff so we rely heavily on those volunteer,” Smiskey said.

Senior Libby Schmidt started volunteering for the club during the fall of 2012 but she had worked at the club part-time, during the summer for two years.

“I needed a summer job and I saw it on the job board and it looked like a fantastic opportunity,” Schmidt said.

The Boys & Girls Club Mary Markquart Center, an after-school program for all students ages 8-18 in the Eau Claire schools, welcomes students from 3 to 8 p.m. where they are offered two meals, homework assistance, companionship and a safe place to spend time.

Center Director Travis Ida said kids who come to the club are sometimes less fortunate and at risk. The volunteers get the opportunity to act as a positive role model and interact with the kids.

Schmidt said at the club she is responsible for supervising, helping with homework and making sure the kids maintain behavior expectations.

“I love working with kids who are at risk — that’s why I’m a special ed major,” Schmidt said.

As a special education/early childhood major Schmidt works primarily with young children so the club allows her to expand her experience levels.

Ida, an Eau Claire alumni, started with the organization as a volunteer and progressed into employment. Ida said the club is interested in all majors of study but the club is a great opportunity for students going into education.

“A lot of our volunteers are people who are going on to education in the future and this is a good place to start,” Ida said. “Through the university we have regular volunteering, people can get their service learning through here as well. There are also some paid positions from the university through the work study program.”

Junior social work major, Katie Schwalbe does administrative work at the club — answering phones, checking kids in, working with forms — but also has experience working in the game room and playing with the kids. She said working at the club is what inspired her to get into the field of social work.

Schwalbe said the hardest part of working at the club is paying attention and watching for issues happening outside of the club.

“The hardest part is suspected child abuse and having to report that whether it is going on or it isn’t,” Schwalbe said. “You see kids struggling at home with their home lives and all sorts of things like not having enough food or not having a good home life in general.”

The club has exposed Schwalbe to real issues and experiences that families deal with and has helped develop her career path. Schwalbe said there are lots of places to volunteer your time in Eau Claire but the club is a great choice for a place to volunteer.

“I think it’s a great place; it’s fun,” Schwalbe said. “I look forward to coming to work everyday because it’s not work. You get to sit around and play with kids and get to know them. I can’t think of a better way to volunteer.”

There are opportunities for public relations, marketing and graphic design internships at The Boys and Girls Club but Ida said someone just needs a good personality and a willingness to be flexible.

“Upbeat, caring, someone who is willing to step in the door and just completely step out of their comfort zone and just interact with whatever the kid might need for that day,” Ida said. “You need to be changing constantly. You have to be able to adjust on the fly.”

Aside from career experience, service learning hours and volunteer opportunity, the club allows students to get involved in the community and be connected to the city in addition to the university.

“It’s good to just get that connection to the community because when you are on campus, it’s like this bubble where you don’t really see what is happening in the city of Eau Claire,” Schmidt said. “From actually seeing these kids who are living in the city and going to school here, it’s a totally different perspective from what you see on campus.”

Something the Boys and Girls Club is looking for is more stable volunteers but quite often students will finish their 30 service learning hours and continue to come back.

Schmidt already finished her hours before volunteering at the club so either way it allows students to work closely with the Eau Claire community and makes a difference in kid’s lives.

“Since I’ve been involved … I’ve seen some of the kids growing and changing,” Schmidt said. “You form relationships with them and they are a lot of fun.”

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