Happy Birthday wishes went out Thursday to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Yellowstone County, which are celebrating 50 years serving kids in Billings.
When it first opened in 1971, it was called the Boys Club, and was located in the basement of the old Billings Library, now the Western Heritage Center.
From there, the Boys Club moved to the Yellowstone Paper Company building across the tracks, and it wasn't long before the club's membership grew to around 300.
Activities included archery lessons, shuffle board, and playing checkers. A rather stark beginning for what's turned into a half-century of helping kids in need.
"No one had heard of this thing, nobody knew about Boys Club," said Brian Dennis, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Yellowstone County. "There was no history, there was nothing to lean on, no foundation. They were desperate because they knew kids needed more to do. They had hoped it would gradually get figured out, and gratitude that the community stepped forward."
Dennis credits former Mayor Willard Fraser for helping pave the way for the Boys Club to gain its footing in Billings. The club's first executive director was Baltimore native Gordon Eldredge, who pretty much grew up at his local Boys Club. Eldredge went on to serve as the club's executive director for 25 years.
In April of 1983, when the club moved to the new Bair Family Clubhouse on Orchard Lane, girls were invited to join. It was a controversial decision at the time but proved to be well ahead of its time. The national Boys and Girls Club movement did not begin to include female members until the 1990s.
"It's been amazing to think about where we've been and what we have yet to do," said Dennis. "This is just the first 50. We've got another 50 plus to go."
Over the past 50 years, the Boys and Girls Club has grown from serving 70 members in one location in 1971, to serving over 260 members (over 550 pre-pandemic) in five Clubhouses and five micro-site locations in 2021.
Dennis acknowledged this past year, with the pandemic and school shutdowns, has been the most challenging of all. But as always, with hardship comes opportunity.
"In regards to the pandemic, I have come to realize how closely the club has remained to our mission to serve those who need us most," said Dennis. "We're going to keep working at it and we're going to try to find the best way to engage the most number of kids, and provide the best experience we can."
Part of that experience now involves new club micro-sites located at five Billings elementary schools, where club kids used to be bused to the Bair Family Clubhouse after school. But with the pandemic limiting the number of kids allowed inside at the Bair Family Clubhouse, club leaders came up with the idea of small micro-site clubhouses.
"We don't have to transport the kids, we don't have the time lost in moving kids, we can serve them right away," Dennis said. "The engagement, the relationships, the stuff that is so important to what we do, has been incredible."
Dennis hopes to open three additional micro-sites in the near future, but that depends on the ability to hire enough qualified staff.
"If we can find the staff, we would open three more tomorrow," said Dennis. "We've got the space, we have the resources, we just don't have the people."
In the meantime, club officials invite the community to join in celebrating its 50th anniversary. The year-long celebration will include spotlighting alumni, founders, funders and club advocates who have played a vital role in the success of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Yellowstone County.
On Thursday, kids at the Bair Family Clubhouse celebrated the important milestone with, what else, birthday cake, balloons and games.