The Boys & Girls Club of Elgin celebrated its 20th anniversary with an open house Thursday night that also recognized the recipient of the club's "youth of the year" award.
Seventeen-year-old Taylor Unser, a junior at Larkin High School, won the award because of her dedication to the club, her grades, her attitude, and her involvement in the community, which includes volunteering through the Keystone service program, said Liz Orcutt, who oversees after-school programs at six middle and high schools in Elgin.
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"She's just really a special girl," Orcutt said.
Taylor has attended the club since seventh grade, and she calls it "awesome.
"I love it here. There's a lot of kids that I can socialize with, and I learn new skills," she said.
Her favorite? Tap dancing, she said.
Most importantly, the club taught her how to deal with school bullying, said Taylor, who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.
"Now I know how to deal with it and not take it personally," she said.
The club has really changed her outlook on life, Taylor said.
"Before, I was anti-social and I saw the world as mean, and why put myself out there if I'm going to get crushed?'" she said. "Boys and Girls Club showed me that not everything is dark."
The Elgin club has come a long way in two decades, said Jodi Martin, interim executive director.
"It's a milestone that gives us an opportunity to serve more and more kids each and every day," Martin said. "To think of where we were 20 years ago, in a small little house, being able to serve just a few kids ... to being able to outreach to 4,000 students, it's just incredible."
That number includes the club's 1,400 or so members, plus all the kids that come into contact with the club in other ways, such as summer events and school activities, she explained.
The program for kids in sixth grade and younger runs 2 to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday. It includes an hour of homework, and an hour of "core program" -- which includes leadership, health, arts, fitness and education -- plus time for fun activities.
The teen program debuted new, later hours from 6 to 9 p.m. on March 1.
"We needed to give them support crucial hours when they're bored, getting into trouble," Orcutt said.
That has already resulted in higher attendance, she added.
In late May, the club also hopes to unveil a new teen center featuring colorful decor, plus iPads, cameras, Photoshop and printers, so teens can dabble in technology while using their creativity, Martin said.
Orcutt said the club helps kids form friendships unlike the ones they form at school.
"Normally, you see cliques forming, racial lines being divided, and that is not the case here," she said. "They come here, and they're just kids. They get to interact with people outside of their normal little bubble."
The Boys & Girls Club of Elgin is at 355 Dundee Avenue in Elgin. Membership is $25 for the clubhouse, $10 for school programs. Spanish-speaking volunteers are needed. For more information, call (847) 608-5017 or visit boysandgirlsclubofelgin.org.