From Member to Mentor: Jason Belk's strong ties to the Boys and Girls Clubs
By Brad McEwen
To say Jason Belk has an affinity for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Albany and its mission to serve young people and help them become invested and engaged citizens is most assuredly an understatement.
Not only has the current club director of operations been working full time for the organization since 1988, “Uncle Jake,” as he’s affectionately known to scores of area children and club alums, has been a fixture at the clubs for more than four decades, working tirelessly to make a real difference in the lives of the young boys and girls that find a safe haven in the clubs.
“I’ve been affiliated with the Boys and Girls Clubs since 72,” Jason told me recently when we sat down at the club’s Jefferson Street Unit he started frequenting at the age of 12, to discuss his deep connection to the youth service organization and his life’s mission of service. “I was a paraprofessional in the Dougherty County School System in the P.E. department and I took that job right out of college in 1983. But I would leave school every day and walk across the street to the Boys and Girls Club. I was just part-time then, but after we joined in the early 70s I’ve always been affiliated with the Boys and Girls Clubs.
“Really, me and the Boys and Girls Clubs go all the way back to childhood.”
Like many of the children that are members of the clubs today, Jason—along with his sister and four brothers—grew up in an urban part of central Albany not far from that Jefferson Street facility, raised by a single mother and relying on welfare to help make ends meet.
Although he had a good childhood, filled with love, happiness and support from his mother and siblings, Jason credits his time with the Boys and Girls Clubs for turning him into the person he is today and for instilling in him a desire to provide other children with the same opportunities he was exposed to growing up in the clubs.
“Like I said, I never left it you think about it; I’ve always been here,” Jason reiterated. “So when the opportunity came and they propositioned me with a full time position in 1988, for me it was a no-brainer. It afforded me an opportunity to do what I love doing for a living.
“I love molding kids. I love it. I love finding that spark in a kid that’s going to help that kid be a productive, caring and responsible citizen. I love to take the roughest edge and smooth it out. I look for it. I always have. Being here gives me that opportunity.”
That love of serving young people is evident to anyone who spends time with him, watching him interact with the members, playing games and lending them a shoulder and an ear. But in order to fully explain his passion for enriching the lives of Boys and Girls Clubs members, Jason took me on a journey back in time, painting a vivid picture of what being a club member meant in his life, and then drawing connections to the impact he’s trying to have on kids today.
With a twinkle in his eye Jason recounted his earliest memories of the club, which began with the Belk brothers and their neighborhood friend becoming trailblazers by becoming the first African American members of what had been a segregated organization since its founding as the Boys Club of Albany in 1965.
“We had a good friend named Ira Taylor,” Jason explained. “He grew up a block over and one day he came down the alley right there into the playground across from my mom’s house and he showed us his Boys and Girls Clubs card. For whatever reason, they let him join, so we decided to go too. Me and my three brothers were the next four blacks to join the Boys and Girls Clubs, so we were in on the front end.”
I must confess, at this point in Jason’s story I was prepared to hear a much different tale, one far too familiar, one where a small minority group children simply looking for acceptance had to endure ridicule and scorn while attempting to integrate into a foreign environment looking to reject them.
Fortunately for the Belks and the scores of children that followed, that’s not really what happened to Jason and his brothers and the kids who have come through the clubs since are all the better for it.
While there were a few growing pains early on, Jason told me the brothers were accepted and that they not only forged profound connections and lasting friendships with individuals of different races, their lives were transformed in ways he is convinced would not have happened had the Belks not made that decision to follow their friend into the clubs looking for a few simple things—the same basic things Jason says draw kids into the clubs today.
“When you think about it, things haven’t changed a whole lot from then to now because number one you want to be safe and after that you want to fun,” said Jason. “When you’re in a safe place, you’re having fun, you’re meeting people, and you’re building bonds with people—lifetime bonds—it just helps you become a better person, a more well-rounded person. And that’s what the club does.
“The club opens the scope for so many kids. It did for us. You know we were young kids that ain’t been nowhere but basically their community, their neighborhood. We had never been anywhere probably farther than Lee County. The Boys and Girls Clubs showed us something more.”
What it showed them and still shows children today is a broader world, filled with opportunities and his first glimpse at those visions are still fresh in Jason’s mind. Through the clubs, Jason said he and his brothers were able to travel well beyond Lee County, visiting places like Valdosta, Atlanta, even California, all the while gaining a better understanding of the larger world and seemingly endless possibilities for their lives.
Just as it does today, the brothers’ affiliation with the Boys and Girls Clubs also provided them innumerable opportunities to take part in exciting activities they might not otherwise have been able to experience, like the regular trips they used to take to Braves games where they bore witness to some exciting and historical moments.
Not only were Jason and his friends once given an autographed bat signed by Pittsburg Pirate legends like Manny Sanguillen and Willie Stargell, in town to play the Braves in the early 70s, he was at Fulton County when Hank Aaron hit both his 500th and 700th home runs, even getting a special certificate he still has commemorating the latter.
“There were just lots of moments like that through the Boys and Girls Clubs—things like flying on an airplane for the first time, going to Atlanta, eating in nice restaurants, going to the World’s Fair, flying to California. Man I wouldn’t have done any of that if it weren’t for the Boys and Girls Clubs.”
Perhaps more important than trips to Atlanta and California, Jason credits the Boys and Girls Clubs, and the lessons he learned there, with directly guiding the direction of his life and being a catalyst for the personal successes he’s enjoyed.
He said mentors like Bill Clark and others that cared for him as he grew up in the clubs helped him understand the importance of doing his homework and getting an education which helped lead Jason and his siblings to attend college, something he is intensely proud of.
“I was probably a C student in high school, but I was on the Dean’s list in college, because I got a little more serious,” he said with a wry smile. “I understood that if I put a little bit into it I could get a lot out of it. And a lot of that discipline comes from the Boys and Girls Clubs.
“Honestly and truly, coming from a single mother, we could have been doing anything and some of our friends were. Some of them aren’t here anymore and some are in jail. Instead I have a business degree. My older brother has a business degree. My younger brother, he’s got a business degree and he went on and has a Masters from Ohio State University in public administration. And my baby sister is a doctor; she’s a chemist.
“And all of that happened because we saw another side here at the Boys and Girls Clubs. It allowed us to see some things that I don’t think we would have seen otherwise.”
While Jason and his siblings learned the value of education through the Boys and Girls Clubs, their involvement there also helped hone some of the other skills that led them to future successes. Jason said he and his brothers all earned scholarships for college thanks to the training they received at the Boys and Girls Clubs, and he works hard to makes sure similar talents are developed in today’s club members.
“Me and all my brothers went to college on basketball scholarships; we were pretty good athletes,” he said. “I was a great athlete. All my brothers, we could run, jump, shoot, catch, that’s natural. You learn that in the neighborhood. We learned that playing in the dirt alleys down here.
“But the first indoor basketball court I ever played on was right here. The first time I played in an organized basketball game was right here, organized soccer, volleyball, all kinds of things.
“When it comes to organization, structure, and being able to function as a unit, I learned that at the Boys and Girls Club. I went to college because of the Boys and Girls Clubs.”
With the club having had that kind of impact on him it’s really no wonder that Jason has dedicated his life to the service of young people. Whether through his time with the Dougherty County School System or his 30-plus years as a club employee, Jason has been working to provide life-changing opportunities to area kids because he feels compelled to give back.
“You get to my age and you understand, you’re here by the grace of God; you could have been a statistic,” Jason said somberly. “I could have been that person. Trust me now. But I’m still here. I learned from being in the club.
“As an adult, being able to give kids that same thing, to me it’s priceless. You can’t compare it.”
In fact, his desire to improve the lives of area children has been so strong in his life that Jason said he turned down other opportunities that might have led to more money or more prestige because he knew serving kids is what he was meant to do.
“I had an opportunity, probably 20 years or so ago, to go to P&G,” Jason recalled. “I mean you go to thinking, ‘will you be happy, will you make more money, will you be this, will you be that?’ I just said, ‘I’m going to stay here.’ Leaving here was just never really what I wanted to do. And I have never regretted it. Never.”
In fact, Jason says he likes to tease current Boys and Girls Clubs of Albany CEO Marvin Laster, saying that not only does he have no regrets about his choice to stay with the clubs all these years, but that he doubts he’ll ever leave.
“I love what I do; I wouldn’t trade it for the world;” he said with a broad smile. “I talk about it all the time. I told Marvin, ‘you know when I retire I’m going to come back and drive the van or something. You ain’t going to get rid of me.’”
Although he’ll joke about retirement, it’s obvious Jason has no plans to turn into a bus driver anytime soon.
Right now he’s busy making sure the clubs have “everything they need to operate” and continuing to build relationships with the club’s current members.
Really it’s hard to imagine Jason not tuned into the needs of the kids who frequent the club. After listening to him talk about the profound impact being an important force in their lives has on him and how much it means to him that he’s been able to live a life of service, it’s safe to assume he will be heavily involved with the clubs for years to come. In fact, it seems to me he feels he’s still got an vital role to play in many kids lives and that he’s been called to fulfill it.
“Can you imagine being a kid and you have nobody that you can talk to, nobody you can go to?” Jason asked me rather seriously. “That’s the case for a lot of kids and it hurts my heart when I hear kids say that. I can’t stand to see a kid mistreated on any level.
“I’ve got kids that call me granddaddy, kids that call me ‘Uncle Jake.’ It’s a serious responsibility. It takes something to earn a kids trust. When you’ve been able to do that over the years you have to keep doing it. That’s why P&G wasn’t an option for me.
“I think you have to be chosen to do Boys and Girls Clubs, to do it right. You have to have a passion for this. When you get my age you don’t want a whole lot out of life. If I ain’t done it, then oh well. For me it’s just seeing these kids. It brings tears to my heart to see my kids doing good.”
Based on the time I got to spend with Jason I have no doubt he’ll continue diligently working to make sure he’s got plenty more opportunities to cry tears of joy and countless more area young people will find new friends, mentors and possibilities at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Albany.
Connect with Brad - 229.405.7212 - firstname.lastname@example.org - @BradGMcEwen