THE KING OF CLUBS by JOHN SPRINGER; Courant Staff Writer
Matthew Czajkowski took a pass and sprinted unopposed toward the other team’s basket with all the speed his 8-year-old legs could deliver.
“Oh, no! Good try, Matt,” Brian Czajkowski offered encouragingly, as the ball and 2 points slipped from his son’s grasp during a game at the Bristol Boys and Girls Club.
It is not about making layups, scoring points or winning games at the 90-year-old club. It is about children, about filling their minds and bodies with the makings of good citizens, productive adults and loving fathers and mothers.
Parents and officials at the club on Laurel Street credit James W. Truscio, the current executive director, with taking the club off autopilot three years ago and refocusing staff energies on its mission statement.
The words were changed several times since the nonprofit organization was formed in 1907, but the mission remains unchanged: adults helping children of all backgrounds to become leaders and responsible citizens.
“When I came here I didn’t know anything about this club and I didn’t know anything about boys and girls clubs in general,” said Truscio, 48, of North Bloomfield. Truscio, a certified school principal, teacher and day care administrator, was hired in 1993.
“My charge has been to implement the mission statement. It gives me the direction I need. There have been some pretty dramatic changes in the past three years I have been here.”
Change came quickly.
In the game room, coin-operated video games were sucking in quarters by the bucket full.
In the gym, teenage boys had to relinquish the floor to an adult basketball league.
Key staff members worked days, though much of the club’s programming and activities were after school and supper.
“All day long I saw kids dropping quarters into [the games]. That was upsetting to me. We immediately got rid of the machine,” Truscio said. “We were kicking the kids off the gym floor at 6:15. That bothered me. . . . We are not going to kick kids off the floor for an adult league.”
Because he changed the priorities for the gym and the club hours — it now opens at 11 a.m. — Truscio bumped heads with some of the adults who pay membership fees.
The club was theirs long before Truscio answered a newspaper ad, and they had grown accustomed to working out in the morning. The board backed Truscio, who argued that adult memberships should support programs for the children.
“We needed to change that, especially the hours. We could have just said, `No more,’ but I didn’t want to do that. By restructuring it, we saved the adult program,” Truscio said. “We had forgotten that we are a youth-development program.”
Truscio speaks his mind and generally does what he says he is going to do. Since he’s been there, the club has established satellite centers at two low-income housing projects more than 2 miles away. The day care program serves 400 children at seven locations.
“I came on the board about the same time Jim came. I think he has revitalized the club and revitalized the board,” said Patti Ewen, a member of the club’s board of directors. “A lot has happened over the past three years. The outreach programs are so good. We don’t have enough staff to do all we can do because they are so successful.”
Former club president John Letizia said Truscio’s drive and background in educational administration made it easy for him, in a sense, to lead the board rather than be led by it.
“Even though we instinctively knew we needed a change in direction, we didn’t have anyone to carry the ball for us and do it,” Letizia said. “That’s what Jim has done for us. He’s a professional.”
In the basement of the club’s aging headquarters, Laquonte Taylor closes his left eye slightly as he draws the billiards cue back to line up the eight-ball with the side pocket.
Taylor , 17, a junior at Bristol Central High School, doesn’t know, or care, about what goes on in the board room. But he says he can’t imagine where he would go if he didn’t have the club each afternoon.
“We’ve got nothing else to do, so we come down here. We come to stay out of trouble,” said Taylor, sinking the ball to win the game.
Taylor’s parents stop by the teen center often to make sure Laquonte, his sister, Allison, 14, and his brother, Kevin, 12, are there and are behaving.
“I always come and check up on them and make sure they’re here. It’s a good place for them to be,” Angela Taylor said.
George Taylor, 43, said the club is different from when he was a member in the late 1960s. Teen dances were popular then but a rarity today, though basketball, billiards and the swimming pool are still popular. The club also has a teen center and a computer learning center.
“They’re doing a good job,” George Taylor said. “Back then we only had so much. Now they have a lot more. They’re changing with the times.”
Norm Beland has changed with the times. During a career that spanned 43 years, Beland has done every job there is to do at the Bristol Boys and Girls — including Truscio’s.
What has not changed is Beland’s love for the place that is still known as “the Boys Club” by three generations of Bristol residents.
Beland’s formal association with the club came on his 7th birthday in 1941. It ended Friday with his retirement. A member of the club’s Older Members’ Association, Beland vowed to remain active with the children as a part-time volunteer.
As a kid, Beland couldn’t wait to join.
“This was the place to go to play basketball, pool and do everything. It’s where all your friends came. It is still a great place,” said Beland, now 63, a father of three and grandfather of five. “My brothers always came down. It was a lot of fun.”
The youngest of five boys, Beland was a self-described troublemaker growing up on Locust Street and running with the West End gang. Mischievous but typically not violent, the street clubs of Bristol circa 1945 were nothing like the gangs today.
“I came from a tough family. My dad got laid off and times were tough for us. I was labeled a troublemaker and I guess I was,” he said.
He got his first job at the club when he was 14, earning $5 a month as a coatroom attendant. With age came additional responsibility – game room supervisor, locker room attendant, lifeguard.
In 1951, Beland graduated from Bristol High School and joined the staff full time as physical director. Later, he was director of Camp Wangum, the 140-acre summer camp in Salisbury that was sold in 1987. He ran the Forestville Boys Club from 1963 to 1973, before it was closed to save money, and was executive director from 1973 to 1988.
“I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t have worked 12-hour days, five or six days a week if I didn’t enjoy it,” he said. “My whole life has been working with these youths. The club is the greatest thing in my life, and in many lives in the community.”
Growing up at the club also meant a lot to Brian Czajkowski, who is now 38 and anxious for his boys, 8 and 11, to learn some of life’s lessons there too.
“It keeps kids out of trouble and it is good for them to learn about competition, winning and losing, and how to accept losses,” said Czajkowski, who lives in Burlington. “A lot of towns have their own basketball and baseball programs. This has more to offer.”