Giving kids a second home

The Boys & Girls Club of Northern Westchester offers at-risk youths supplementary programming, empathy and the opportunity for a better life.

Since it began more than 150 years ago, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) has provided underserved children with after-school programs, offering them another home as it steers them toward completing their education in pursuit of successful careers. The Boys & Girls Club of Northern Westchester (BGCNW) in Mount Kisco is among the organization’s 4,300 member clubs serving the needs of that community.

“Over 70% of our after-school programming families are living below the poverty level,” says Alyzza C. Ozer, CEO of the Northern Westchester club. “In Westchester County, sometimes people don’t see that. People are seeing tremendous affluence…which obviously Westchester County has, but not everybody in Westchester County.” 

Ozer maintains that when underprivileged individuals in the county are given the same support and access to education as the privileged, they are then able to lift themselves up and become successful in their own right, giving back to the community that has served them.

This outlook on education and community service was Ozer’s ethos even before she joined BGCNW in 2015. A graduate of the University of Miami School of Law, she spent more than 25 years in commercial real estate, ultimately serving as managing director of JLL (Jones Lang LaSalle) before combining her passions for business and philanthropy into a career in nonprofits.

“I really enjoyed collaborating in a business capacity in terms of real estate and large corporates, primarily because of the people,” Ozer says. “But if I was fortunate enough to look back at my life, I would think, How can I best leverage my talents and my efforts?”

Ozer served as the regional vice president of the American Cancer Society’s New York City chapter from 2011 to 2012 and as director of development and fundraising for the United Way of Westchester and Putnam from 2012 to 2014.

Since joining the Boys & Girls Club of Northern Westchester, she has made fiscal stability a priority. Thanks, she says, to the “extraordinary board leadership and community support and an incredible team,” the club has met its budget even through the pandemic and has increased revenue by more than 35%. 

That translates into programs.  Working with Ladle of Love, a Bronxville-based takeout shop that began by offering homemade soup to firefighters after 9/11, the club’s food program provides meals made on-site for its members, including dinner, with more than 130,000 meals prepared each year.

The aquatics program offers kids swimming lessons, teaching more than 70,000 children to be safe in the water, “Right now in the United States, drowning is the second cause of accidental death for children 7 and under, and that goes through all socioeconomic lines,” Ozer says. “That doesn’t have to happen. There are enough resources and enough pools available for everybody to learn how to swim and be water-safe.”

Behind the club’s programs are more than 100 employees and more than 600 volunteers, most of whom were club members themselves, like Director of Aquatics Eric Mitchell, who had learned to swim at BGCNW. (More than 87% of former members of the Boys & Girls Clubs give back to their communities, Ozer says.)  The return of members as volunteers reflects BGCNW’s success in instilling compassion at a young age. 

“The preschool kids, the 4-year-olds, they’ll make capes for other kids who are in the hospital so that they’re learning about the importance of empathy and caring for others,” Ozer says. “Our teens are involved in a host of different community service-oriented programming, not just relative to the club. And that then obviously changes the way that people look at things going forward.” 

The Boys & Girls Clubs are also about transforming empathy into action. “One of the things that we teach the members is advocating on behalf of not just yourself but advocating on behalf of those who may not be able to advocate for themselves on important legislation,” Ozer says.

Teenage club members have addressed the New York state legislature regarding after-school programming and food scarcity. “Not only are they passionate about it, but they also have the evidence behind them, the statistics behind them and an understanding of different ways of problem solving,” she says.

In the near future, BGCNW is looking to branch out. The club will partner with Cognitive and Behavioral Consultants in White Plains to provide children in the fifth grade and up with a mental health program that will also serve as a drug abuse preventive. “I think that since Covid has happened, some of the stigma associated with mental health issues has been lifted, and I think that the community in general understands that our children have been through a lot,” Ozer says.

The team at BGCNW will also be expanding into Peekskill after securing funding through Westchester County as well as Peekskill’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative and working with former Peekskill Mayor Andre Rainey and current Mayor Vivian McKenzie. “We’re extraordinarily excited about finalizing the transaction whereby we would be moving into Peekskill with a full renovation of the Kiley Youth Center and providing services to the kids in Peekskill, to be able to serve more kids,” Ozer says.

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