When Eric Rodriguez was 7 years old, the Grant Woods Branch of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the East Valley became his second home. Today it’s still his second home — and also his livelihood. He’s been the branch executive for the past three years.
Rodriguez grew up in the hardscrabble neighborhood southeast of Broadway Road and Country Club Drive and quickly learned that the club was a safe place where he could have fun with friends, do his homework and pursue his interests in karate, gymnastics and art.
“Our goal always has been to create a better environment than the streets — a place where they can have fun and also learn. Kids today need that more than ever, so we need to be doing more,” said Rodriguez. “We need to help them through school so they’ll have a bright future. Our motto now is, ‘Great futures start here.’”
The Grant Woods Branch opened in the mid-1980s in dilapidated old gym on the original campus of Mesa High School. It later moved to a new building at 221 W. Sixth Ave. amid skepticism by some city leaders that the club could fall victim to vandalism and gang activity. It turned out to be a wise move.
“We’re an oasis in the desert,” said Dennis Marcello, vice president of development for Boys and Girls Clubs of the East Valley. “We’re literally saving lives.”
Although there were some problems with graffiti early on, the property is clean and trouble-free today. The Mesa Arts Academy, one of the state’s top charter schools, shares the property, and both the school and the club draw kids from across the East Valley.
The club has 1,750 members, who pay $25 a year. Sponsors make sure no child is turned away. During the school year the club serves an average of 280 kids a day. There are lots of organized sports activities going on in the two gyms and athletic fields, plus arts programs, games, a computer lab and a quiet room for doing homework.
A separate teen club has games, TVs, books and lounging areas. Mesa United Way is a sponsor of programs at the club aimed at helping teens grow into responsible, drug-free adults. The agency also helps support a summer enrichment program for all ages.
“These kids do more than hang out here,” said Rodriguez. “They know that our staff are interested in them and concerned about what’s going on in their lives. We’ll ask them, ‘How are you doing in school? How are your parents doing? Do you have anything you want to talk about?’ They know we care about them.”
As a teenager, Rodriguez volunteered at the Grant Woods Branch, helping supervise the younger kids. After graduation he joined the Marine Corps and served in Iraq. Every so often he’d get a package from Mesa with artwork created by the kids he’d worked with at the club.
“I realized this is where I belong,” he said. “I know we’re making a difference.”
Bob Schuster is a retired journalist and volunteer publicist for Mesa United Way.