They're called Club Kids, the 4,500 children who today belong to the 15 Boys & Girls Clubs of Buffalo. Former Mayor Anthony Masiello was a Club Kid. So was former basketball great Bob Lanier, and Baby Joe Mesi came up through the Babcock Clubhouse.
On Wednesday afternoon, about 100 club kids gathered at the John F. Beecher Clubhouse on 10th Street to hear from a visiting alumnus, television star Mario Lopez.
Keiana Porter, 8, sat patiently on the gym bleachers waiting for Lopez to arrive. The little girl with corn rows said she knew Lopez from MTV's "America's Best Dance Crew." When the star burst into the room, Keiana may have screamed the loudest.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Buffalo represent a haven for many children. Its after-school programs and summer camps have offered hot meals, cool activities and educational guidance for generations of area families.
"This is their safe place," said Katie Trask, administrative quality control manager for the Buffalo clubs. "They look forward to coming here."
Before becoming an actor and talk show host, Lopez, 38, learned how to wrestle at the Chula Vista Boys & Girls Club in Southern California. He went on to win state wrestling championships. Wrestling, he said, help win him the role as high school jock A.C. Slater on the NBC sitcom "Saved by the Bell," which aired from 1989 to 1993.
"I grew up in a Boys & Girls Club from the time I was 5 years old until I was 16," Lopez told the children. "I went every day after school. I worked with people who really looked out for me. They introduced me to wrestling and the superb Foosball skills that I have. I don't know if I would have been able to do all the things I have done if it were not for the Boys & Girls Club. It managed to keep me out of trouble while my mom and dad were at work."
The children listening to Lopez on Wednesday had not even been born when he broke into acting, but as fitness ambassador for Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Lopez makes a point to stop at clubs across the country during his promotional tours.
Wednesday's stop at Beecher
Clubhouse came after Lopez visited WKBW-TV, which will air "Extra," his news magazine show.
Lopez, who spent about 30 minutes at the club, was presented with a Buffalo Bills jersey and a sweatshirt from Jamersin Redfern, the 2012 Youth of the Year for Boys & Girls Clubs of Buffalo.
Lopez also watched a skit against bullying and a dance performance starring club kids from throughout Western New York.
Tsahi Maden, 12, of Amherst Middle School, attends the Boys & Girls Club on Bailey Avenue in Eggerstville. Tsahi, dressed in a canary yellow leotard, performed a dance routine, but she'd rather be cooking. Each week, Tsahi looks forward to the cooking class offered at the Eggerstville club. This week she made Olympic Ring Pizza.
"It's really a cake served with whipped cream and fruit," she said. "It was super good. We also made watermelon salsa and lemonade. I'll dance right now, but my real goal is to be a chef like my dad."
Khiari Parker, 12, of Amherst, also danced, but her friends say she's a better singer.
During the summer, the girls spend 10 hours a day at the Amherst club.
"I used to stay home by myself," said Tsahi, "and it was kind of scary, but then I came here and I met new people, new friends and mentors, and a lot of good things have happened to me. A lot of nice words have been said to me."
Trask said most people don't understand everything that the organization strives to do.
"The common misconception," she said, "is that we roll out the basketballs, and that's all they do, play basketball. That couldn't be any farther from the truth. We actually concentrate on education, which is one of our top priorities, along with health and life skills, character and leadership development. We study the arts, and we do sports, fitness and recreation."
According to Trask, Boys and Girls Clubs stress five core programs: character and leadership development; health and life skills; arts; career development; and sports, fitness and recreation.
"During the fall, children at the clubs receive a snack and dinner, and for some of the kids -- if they're not in school that day -- that's the only food they're getting. Some of our kids come here to eat, but they also meet positive role models they can build relationships with."
"Never think that you can't be what you want to be, whether it's a doctor or an actor on television, because of where you're from or because you won't have the opportunity," Lopez told the children. "That's just wrong. Stay focused. You want to do the right thing in school.
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