MARICOPA — After nearly a decade of work to open the first Boys & Girls Club in Maricopa, the nonprofit again overcame obstacles in an unusual opening year.

The club first began talks of a Maricopa branch back in 2008. In the midst of a recession and a housing slump, the discussion quickly came to a stonewall. Then again in 2017, supporters put their heads together with city officials and began discussion of a Maricopa branch.

But it wouldn’t be until January 2020 when Matt Lemberg, Boys & Girls Clubs of the Sun Corridor executive director, could announce the opening of a new chapter at Santa Cruz Elementary, scheduled for fall.

Even then, it was soon apparent that the club would need to overcome more challenges to open when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. Still, the club made quick work of the hurdles that followed.

“We ended up voting unanimously to continue to move forward with plans to open on schedule,” Lemberg said. “We just felt comfortable where we were from a fundraising standpoint, and from a partnership standpoint, that we could open successfully just as we had hoped.”

“Now that we can take a step back and look at it,” Lemberg added, “there was certainly a greater need for services like ours in this pandemic when schools have gone back and forth between virtual and in-person learning.”

When crises happen, institutions like Boys & Girls Clubs serve as a solace for struggling families. The team at Sun Corridor quickly pivoted to the community’s needs during the pandemic, working with the Maricopa Unified School District to open not just the after-school program, but also a learning lab.

“We assumed that when we opened in August, we would be an after-school program — the pandemic wasn’t on our radar at all,” Lemberg said. “Then MUSD asked if we could still open in August, but as an all-day Learning Lab. … And so on Aug. 10, we officially opened up in Copa for the first time and have been open every day since then.”

For the first month or so, and every time virtual learning was necessary due to quarantines, the Boys & Girls Club at Santa Cruz would make the move with students: switching to a structured, education-focused classroom setting for remote learning. Staff would help students log in, do assignments and attend their classes virtually.

This was very different from their normal after-school activities from 3 to 7 p.m., which include games, sports and small group activities.

In the first year, the club had around 80 students and four staff members, with about 25 students showing up daily. As the school year ends, the program opens up for summer hours, catering to Santa Cruz students from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. with a traditional array of summertime fun activities and organized play.

More fundraising events are in the future too, including the long-awaited Dancing for our Stars Gala, slated for April 2022. Fundraising in 2020 as a whole took a hit, and the club hopes to be more aggressive in growth in 2021.

“We would really like to get a normal year under our belts, especially from a fundraising standpoint,” Lemberg said. “It’s not all recreating the wheel or creating new events necessarily — our golf marathon was specific to Maricopa.”

The April golf marathon, one of the first events of 2021, was labeled a resounding success by the club and saw over $26,000 raised for the nonprofit. If the Boys & Girls Club is able to continue the successful fundraising, Associate Maricopa Board member Rusty Akers foresees expansion in the future.

“We would love to find some additional local support,” Akers said. “I think we’re looking at opening another club in fall of 2022. A year from now, we’ll be looking at opening up another location here in Maricopa. Funding is our biggest issue right now — having the available funds, and then just getting the word out to the community that we’re here.”

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Katie Sawyer covers Maricopa and the surrounding area for PinalCentral, including city, education, business, crime and more. She can be reached at ksawyer@pinalcentral.com.