Now 26-year-old Markie Cortez, who’d been going to the Sierra Vista clubhouse since he was in fifth grade, always knew returning to work at the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Clarita Valley was he wanted to do.
“I knew when I came here, I always was like, ‘If I ever got the chance, I’d love to work here,’ because the staff is what makes the whole experience so rewarding for the kids,” Cortez said. “You remember the staff that was really cool with you, they make the club what it is, so I love to go full circle and be the staff that I had for those kids.”
As a kid, most don’t realize the hard work that goes into making activities both fun and educational. It’s this and more that some of the club’s alumni who have returned to the club after being members years ago quickly realize as they work with kids, working to give them the experience they had years ago.
Cortez began attending the club when he moved to the Santa Clarita Valley because his mother had to work and continued at the club through high school.
“I had just moved here, so I didn’t know anybody, so the club was really good for meeting new people, making new friends,” Cortez added. “I met a lot of the friends that I kept through junior high and high school playing basketball, (and) I was able to make a lot of good bonds and connections.”
Similarly, 19-year-old Maya Jackson, teen coordinator, started coming to the club in the third grade as somewhere to be after school while her parents worked.
“I used to be one of those kids that stayed until the very end (of the day),” she said, adding that she, too, made great connections at the club. “I met one of my longest friends here. I met her in third grade when I started and we’re still friends.”
For Jackson, it was the familiarity with the club that brought her back to work there in September of last year, as she knew some of the club’s staff who had been around when she was a kid and were still there.
“It was a job that was in something that I was interested in, and I already knew what it was going to be like going into it,” she added. “It was just something that I knew I would be comfortable with.”
Both Cortez and Jackson work with the teens, which make up around 60% of the club’s members, according to club CEO Matt Nelson.
For Jackson, it’s getting to bond with the kids that’s most rewarding, she said, adding, “I think that’s probably the most fun part of the job is getting to know each of their individual personalities.”
And while it’s definitely been a lot more work than she had expected it to be, Jackson said it’s been rewarding to make sure the kids are both having fun and learning.
“The teens can be, at times, a little bit more intimidating because they can have a range of different things that are going on with their lives, so it’s a little bit more of a challenge, but it’s also, in my eyes, a lot more rewarding because they’re able to kind of connect with you on a different level than the younger kids because intellectually they’re more developed,” Cortez added.
He, too, felt differently about the job as a kid, whose job was “just show up and make sure I stay out of trouble,” he said, understanding now there’s a lot more that goes into it.
“It makes me appreciate what the staff did for me and the other kids when I was coming here,” he added.
Program director and former Youth of the Year at the club, Araceli Arreola, 22, never truly left the Boys & Girls Club.
After getting involved as a member her freshman year of high school, Arreola soon began to volunteer at the club, helping the younger kids with homework in the learning center or with sports leagues.
It became a daily routine for Arreola, who said she would go to the clubhouse after school, go home, then do it all over again the next day.
Arreola continued working with the club when she moved away, then returned to the SCV and local clubhouse in the summer of 2020, starting as a program assistant, and moving up to program director.
“Working with children is always what I wanted to do with my career, so this is a good experience,” she said. “I plan to be here for a long time.”
While Vincent Brian Buencamino, a 21-year-old youth development professional at the Sierra Vista clubhouse, didn’t have to come to the club as a kid, he still did, choosing to follow in his siblings’ footsteps.
“I was old enough to stay home … (but) I also had a lot of siblings that all went to the Boys & Girls Club,” he said. “My brothers were all big basketball fans, so they would just go over there and just play basketball all day, every day. And I just did the same thing.”
It was one of his former coaches at the club who suggested he apply for a position in August 2020 – a decision Buencamino is thankful for.
“The kids, they keep you young, for sure. All their imaginations kind of give you a different perspective (on life),” he added.
He, too, said it’s the kids that keep him at the club, as he appreciates the opportunity to help mold them and be a role model.
“As a member and as a worker, seeing both sides has definitely been an eye-opener for me,” Buencamino said. “As a kid, you just show up and have fun, but behind closed doors, you don’t really realize all the effort being put in, so it makes me more appreciative of my experience.”
Now that the club has reopened its doors, the club alumni agreed it’s been hard work, but remains just as rewarding as ever.
It’s seeing the return of club alumni that Nelson said longtime staff enjoy, especially as it gives the younger kids a role model to show them the opportunities and paths that exist within the club.
“We know so many of our kids go off to do awesome things, but when you get to see it firsthand, it’s very rewarding and we’re very proud of them,” Nelson added. “It’s special because they really want to make the same difference in other kids’ lives that people made in their lives, so to get to see them experience that, see that cycle continue and them pay it forward is so cool.”