By Nate Gartrell
Bay Area News Group
RICHMOND — In February 2012, Steve Alameda decided it was time to hang up his whistle after more than 37 years coaching and teaching in West Contra Costa County schools. He was looking forward to a long, uneventful retirement.
But it wasn’t long before the Salesian Boys and Girls Club of Richmond beckoned. The club, deep in debt and in full crisis mode, needed a new leader, and its board decided that Alameda was the right fit. “We just need you for three months,” they told him.
Alameda was uneasy about the idea but agreed to show up to the meeting. When he did, he recognized the faces of people who had looked after him when he attended the club as a child, still involved after all these years. Whatever reluctance he had was out the window.
“We have plans for ourselves,” Alameda said in a recent interview. “Sometimes God has other plans.”
That was six years ago. Alameda is still the CEO of the club, which has stabilized now and is chugging along into its 73rd year. With a litany of sports and recreational programs, a group of volunteers, and a small handful of paid staff, the club gives roughly 700 kids a safe place to be after school each year.
Among those children is Eriana Smith, a 7-year-old and the youngest of three, who is battling sickle cell disease. Her family is searching for a bone marrow donor and hopes to get her into a gene therapy study.
Eriana has been going to the club regularly for two years, and her mother, Jolene Smith, called it “an extension of my family.”
“The club means everything to my family. … She has learned so much,” Smith said, later adding, “We would be lost without them.”
To make the club accessible to everyone, a $25 fee covers each child for the entire year.
Alameda said he hopes the fun young people have together at the club — no matter what neighborhood they come from — will spill over into the larger community.
“We don’t get a lot of the North Richmond versus south Richmond dialogue that comes in, although the kids that come here come from all four corners of Richmond,” Alameda said. “They leave that aside when they come here, and that’s a real blessing.”
It turns out that Alameda’s story is not unique. All of the club’s staff — and most of its board and volunteers — are returning customers who have positive memories of attending the club as kids and decided to return and give something back as adults. Chief among them is Ed Menosse, who was one of the club’s original members in the 1940s. At age 86, he serves on the board and is known as the club’s main benefactor, organizing events, fundraising and even forming “Eddie’s Cooking Crew” to cater events.
“He was a club kid, and this place is home to him,” Alameda said of Menosse. “He has a special place in his huge heart for kids in this area who don’t have a level playing field.”
The need for their services is impossible to ignore; 90 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Roughly half are from single-parent households, and many others are being raised by their grandparents.
“You have an opportunity to give these kids something that they have never seen before,” said David Arriaga, a program director who attended the club starting at age 7. “It gives them that extra comfort to know they can come here each day and see the same person. These kids rely on us to be open. We strive to always be open, to let them know that, even though there might be bad times, we’re still here for everybody.”
In 2001, Menosse was able to solicit former San Francisco 49ers legend Joe Montana’s help setting up a celebrity golf tournament to help raise money for the club. The result was a whopping $600,000 over five years, which, thanks to grants and matching donations, was enough to build the 32,000 square-foot clubhouse and gymnasium in Richmond, where the club remains to this day. It is located on Moran Avenue, a short distance from Salesian Preparatory School, Richmond High School and a stone’s throw from Ford Elementary School.
But lately there have been no former star quarterbacks offering to aid the club, forcing it to rely on volunteers as well as six fundraisers throughout the year.
The nonprofit has received funding this year from Share the Spirit, an annual holiday campaign that serves disadvantaged residents in the East Bay. Donations helped support 49 nonprofit agencies in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. Through participation in the Share the Spirit program, the club will effectively double the number of impoverished families who receive a free Christmas meal this holiday season, as well as expanding a gifts for kids program the club holds every December.
“Literally every dime we make goes back to those children. Our overhead is very low, and our commitment is extremely high,” said Joe Aita, San Pablo’s chief of police from 2005 to 2010, who sits on the club’s board.
“I see the benefits of those children just becoming fine young men and women and not on the street and not being influenced by gangs and drugs and everything else that’s out there,” Aita said. “That’s the satisfaction for me: watching them grow and prosper into fine young citizens, and that’s what we’re all trying to accomplish.”
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, funds nonprofit holiday and outreach programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
To make a tax-deductible contribution, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate. Readers with questions, and individuals or businesses interested in making large contributions, may contact the Share the Spirit program at 925-472-5760 or firstname.lastname@example.org.