Very few things in life truly stand the test of time. We’re fortunate to have one of those time-honored organizations right here in our backyard. What started on Christmas Day in 1913 as a clubhouse for 50 boys in Southport has evolved into a flourishing organization known today as Wakeman Boys & Girls Club.
Celebrating 109 years, Wakeman BGC now serves over 3,000 youth through its four vibrant sites in Fairfield and Bridgeport. With its illustrious history, the Club continues to offer girls and boys access to a wide range of academic, artistic, athletic, and community service activities with an admirable mission: “To guide and inspire young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, and responsible citizens”.
Wakeman BGC’s CEO, Sabrina Smeltz, reflects on how the Club puts the mission into action: “Over 10 years ago we expanded our reach from Fairfield into Bridgeport. As we bring on a 2nd location in Bridgeport, it is important to stay true to our roots, but also push boundaries to provide critical and impactful programs. The 100-year legacy is a testament to the support of the community, staff, and volunteers who have been stewards of our organization over the years.”
A RETROSPECTIVE LOOK BACK ON MAJOR MILESTONES…
1913: Original Boys Club opens on Harbor Road
Thanks to a generous $40,000 endowment established by cousins, Frances and Cornelia Wakeman Crapo—in honor of their grandfather, Jesup Wakeman—Wakeman Boys Club opened in Southport. It was their goal to establish a club that would "provide inducement to, and means for, the mental, moral, and physical improvements of the young people who come within its reach.”
1954: Southport Clubhouse opens on Center Street
Under the leadership of Red Baker, Executive Director from 1945-1975, membership grew from 50 to 500 so a larger clubhouse was built on Center Street. Athletics was the primary pursuit for most early Wakeman members; it was a means to build character through sportsmanship. For parents and community leaders it became evident that WBGC’s activities were transformational, and its reputation spread as a positive place where young people could thrive and grow toward responsible adulthood beyond their family and school life.
1983: Boys Club Renamed Wakeman Boys & Girls Club
Although girls were always welcome at the Club, it was officially renamed to captivate the diverse interests of both its male and female membership. Program inventory also grew from athletics to education, character & leadership development, the arts, and health & lifetime skills.
1989-2005: The Club’s Footprint Expands
In the late 1980's, with Executive Director Dave Blagys at the helm, membership approached 750 boys and girls. A $1.2M capital campaign added a second gymnasium to complement the original gym, allowing for more in-house and travel basketball teams and for kids to meet and mingle with others from all over town. In the early 2000’s, an additional $2.5M campaign raised funds to add extra program space, a sports court, and a turf field. Social boundaries previously defined by school and neighborhood continued to fade away.
2005: McKinley School-Based Site Opens in Partnership with Fairfield Public Schools
Wakeman BGC established an after-school program at McKinley School, offering enrichment programs on-site for the school’s diverse student body. Local high school students serve as mentors to McKinley students, assisting with homework and socialization. The success of the mentoring program prompted another at Holland Hill School in 2018, and in 2021, Wakeman BGC’s Great Futures Before & After School Program replaced the for-profit childcare service at McKinley. This program currently serves over 100 students, including free participation for 45 students eligible for free or reduced lunch.
2011: $7M campaign constructs Smilow-Burroughs Clubhouse
In 1998, collaboration began with the Burroughs Community Center located in the West End of Bridgeport. This successful partnership led to a capital fundraising effort which culminated in the opening of the Smilow-Burroughs Clubhouse. This 23,000 square foot, Platinum Level LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified facility has served more than 6,000 children in the Bridgeport community.
2020-2021 A Time of Transitions
Sabrina Smeltz became the first female CEO of Wakeman BGC, taking over for David Blagys who was preparing to retire after 40 years of service to the Club. Immediately tasked with navigating the COVID-19 landscape, Smeltz, the Board of Trustees, and staff worked to reopen the clubhouses for summer camp in June 2020. During the 2020-21 school year, the clubhouses served as remote learning centers and quickly brought back after-school programming. New tiered pricing was rolled out to families, allowing them to choose the fee they can best afford.
2022: Ground is Broken on Madison Avenue Clubhouse
Several years ago, the City of Bridgeport approached WBGC about building a clubhouse at the site of the former North End Boys & Girls Club at 595 Madison Avenue, in one of the most socio-economically challenged areas in the state. This unique project will include partnerships with Southwest Community Health Center for medical, dental, vision and behavioral health services for families, and Bridgeport Caribe Youth Leaders for collaboration on programming.
A GLIMPSE INTO THE FUTURE…
2023: $24M Madison Avenue Clubhouse in Bridgeport to Open
The new clubhouse will have the capacity to serve up to 2,000 children from nine nearby schools, providing a safe space with access to academic support and enrichment programs. The facility will include multiple learning centers, performing arts, tech, and STEM learning space, a field house, and a licensed preschool.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE …
Wakeman BGC’s success for over a century is a mindful endeavor and one that is accomplished by the remarkable generations of staff, directors, trustees, volunteers, and members whose insight, wisdom, and energy are invaluable.
“Wakeman BGC owes much of our success to the foresight and conviction of our Board of Trustees and volunteers. Our board chair, Sean Sullivan, and Trustee and program volunteer, Eileen Blees, are examples of long-time Wakeman BGC volunteers who have put time and talent to help navigate challenges while staying fiscally responsible and serving our youth. We are forever grateful to our volunteers as we could not do what we do without them,” says Smeltz.
IN THEIR WORDS…
We had the opportunity to check in with both Sean Sullivan and Eileen Blees on each of their inspirational Wakeman BGC experiences.
Board of Trustees Chairman
How long have you been a part of WBGC and in what capacities?
My wife, Sheila, and I moved to Fairfield in 2001 and became involved as soon as our four young children began participating in various programs. We have been volunteers and committee members ever since; I joined the board in 2012, becoming the Chairman in 2019.
What drew you to WBGC?
The wonderful programs for children and young adults in a safe environment are so generously supported by parents and the community.
What is your current role at WBGC?
As Chairman, my role is to lead our Board and support CEO, Sabrina Smeltz, and the team primarily in setting the mission, strategy, and programs, as well as resource development (iI.e., fundraising).
What is the most rewarding part?
The ability to have a positive and lasting impact on children and young adults in the Bridgeport and Fairfield communities. I am excited to see the manifestation of this through the Madison Avenue clubhouse!
What does WBGC mean to you on a personal level?
Wakeman gives me the opportunity to give back to our communities. I am blessed to be able to play a role in furthering the mission of Wakeman and expanding the number of children served.
What do you wish more people knew about WBGC?
It’s the intangibles that really set this organization apart from others who offer childcare or sports programs. Each visit to the Club presents multiple opportunities to learn important values that can so often be overlooked in our fast-paced culture. Wakeman volunteers and staff always emphasize being respectful and honest and being a good friend and teammate. Additionally, it’s important to remember that Wakeman is a non-profit, and program accessibility is made possible by philanthropic support that funds 60% of our $3M operating budget.
How can someone get involved at WBGC?
The organization relies on volunteers not only in the clubhouses for coaching or tutoring but also in an advisory capacity. We welcome a range of expertise to assist the Club with resource development and overseeing programs and facilities.
How many years have you been a part of WBGC?
20 years! My involvement began as a parent. It quickly evolved from being on the sidelines to attending fundraising events, to joining the annual auction planning committee, to becoming a Wakeman Board member in 2009.
What drew you to WBGC?
As a lifelong Fairfield resident, I knew hundreds of families who had fantastic experiences at Wakeman. Twenty years ago, when I signed my 1st grader up for Start Smart, I knew he would be in a fun, safe environment. As he grew, so did his desire to be involved in more programs. Wakeman’s atmosphere gave him many opportunities to make friends, have fun, and be part of a team. It fostered a sense of confidence and helped him appreciate the importance of service.
We hear you wear many hats! Can you please tell us about the various roles you play?
I consider myself fortunate to be able to help Wakeman in multiple capacities. Serving on the Board of Trustees for the past 13 years has enabled me to be a true ambassador. I help with marketing efforts, touting our successes to encourage people to support Wakeman through volunteering or donating. I also assist with program delivery, serve as a mentoring chaperone, and have run numerous STEM programs.
What does WBGC mean to you?
Wakeman is an organization that makes a big difference in kids’ lives, helping them build meaningful relationships with peers, staff, and volunteers. These relationships are vital in building confidence and helping them navigate today’s world. Kids need to know there are many people in their community who are there to support them. The energy, curiosity, and enthusiasm that the kids bring when they are at the Club is what keeps me volunteering.
What’s one thing about WBGC that you wish more people knew?
I wish folks knew how many programs and activities go on every day at all the Wakeman sites and how many kids are positively affected! There are kids doing great things from just being a good friend, to trying their best or helping others throughout our communities.
What’s the best way for someone to get involved at WBGC?
Visit the “Get Involved” tab at wakemanclub.org or call the clubhouses at 203-259-4805 (Southport or McKinley School program); 203-908-3378 (Smilow-Burroughs).