MARICOPA — A few years ago, Boys & Girls Clubs of America conducted a study of former members. In the study, they asked what the most memorable part of their experience was.
“The feedback that they received from alumni was, they didn’t remember if they learned how to shoot free throws or did a specific project, but they remembered a specific staff name almost 100% of the time,” said Matthew Lemberg, executive director of Boys & Girls Clubs of the Sun Corridor.
At the Santa Cruz Branch in Maricopa, Lemberg said he’s sure the name students will remember and write down long after they leave the club is Bella Miller.
“She cares about young people, it’s not just a job — she’s passionate about it,” Lemberg said of Miller. “She is the kind of person that young people are going to remember as they grow older because of the work she is investing in their lives.”
Miller began her journey with Boys & Girls Clubs in 2004 as a health analyst for the Clubs of Greater Scottsdale and eventually shifted to Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix. A resident of Maricopa since 2008, she would make the daily drive up State Route 347 for her young members. So she was naturally very excited when she heard of the new branch opening in Maricopa and immediately submitted her application.
She found out she had secured the position of unit director for Santa Cruz Branch in January 2020, just a few short months before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States. The pandemic added an extra stressor to the opening of the club, and it was an adjustment for Miller too.
“I’m so used to seeing 200-plus kids in a program and just starting a new program was challenging,” Miller said. “You want to see kids, but because of the pandemic, it was a lot harder to get parents to see the value of the program.”
Right now, the Santa Cruz Branch serves the K-5 students of Santa Cruz Elementary School. Miller has built up a bond with her club members and greatly enjoys watching the kids in her care grow up. Since 2004, she’s been able to watch, almost like a parent would, as those children turn into adults.
“They are my kids,” Miller said fondly. “When I see kids that I’ve met when they’re in kindergarten, and they graduate high school, they become a parent, and they have their own kids, I feel that I’ve done my job. They’re working, they’re successful, and it feels good.”
Miller’s favorite stories to tell are the ones of kids who have transformed through their time with Boys & Girls Clubs. Kids that maybe weren’t too thrilled at being a club member at first, but over time learned to thrive — so much so that they don’t want to leave.
“A lot of our kids leave at about 6:30 p.m., and (one boy’s) mom started coming earlier to pick him up,” Miller said. “He told his mom, he’s like, ‘Mom, can you come back later? I’m having a good time, I really don’t want to leave now.’ So that in and of itself tells me that we’re making an impact.”
That impact can be felt outside the club walls too. Miller says anytime she wears her Boys & Girls Clubs shirt in public, people stop to tell her about their own positive experiences with the organization. She hopes that the club can continue to expand to make a difference in Maricopa.
“We hope to expand in the future and have more sites so that more kids will be able to have a safe place to go after school and partake in our leadership programs, our art programs, our sport and fitness programs and our work and career programs,” Miller said. “It’s really needed here in the community.”
As part of her role as unit director, Miller also advises the Associate Maricopa Board in making decisions for the club finances and future goals.
“Basically, I’m just the connection and the advocate for our parents, our kids and the community, and then just also making aware of the board members, what’s really needed and what helps … so they have a better understanding of what we do in the club,” Miller said.
Now Miller has geared up for the summer program, which started June 1 and runs through July 16 every day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. She hopes this year’s summer program will only mark the beginning of a new and exciting school year at Santa Cruz with her members.