It doesn’t take too long after the final bell rings at Blaine schools before the noise level rises at the Blaine Boys & Girls Club. The din waxes and wanes steadily through the afternoon as students move in and out of doors, participating in different programming activities.
“It’s somewhere between wildly enthusiastic and deafening,” director Diana Oplinger said. “It takes a little getting used to. On a rainy day, when you’ve got 100 kids in here, it can be a challenge.”
Just steps away from the school complex, the club opens its doors each afternoon to a crowd of students, offering them a place for community, homework help and mentoring. According to its mission statement, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America works “to enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.” Whatcom County has five Boys & Girls Club branches in Blaine, Lynden, Ferndale, Bellingham and Lummi Island.
The picture of poise, Oplinger seems almost out of place against the bold backdrop of the club in her dark suit and high heels. Eloquent and to the point, she looks like the last person you would expect to be running an after-school club. But the kids love her, and she’s excited about what she’s doing.
Oplinger took over as the Blaine Boys & Girls Club’s director in March 2012. Since then, she’s been full steam ahead. The club serves first through 12th-graders, and averages 80 students a day.
She’s already initiated a lot of changes in her six-month tenure as director, and the kids are reaping the benefits.
“The most obvious [change] is the paint job,” Oplinger said with a laugh, referring to the audaciously vibrant blue, green and yellow color palette she chose for the interior of the building.
“It was gray and muted before,” she said, “but it is gray most of the year here, so I didn’t want [that]. I decided we were going bright and tropical to get us through the winter.”
Her initiatives run far deeper than paint on the walls, though. Oplinger has also worked to restructure the curriculum of the club and improve the nutrition value of the food served. “It was a conscious choice to get rid of the vending machine with chips and candy, along with [changing] the other food choices around the club,” she said.
Latching on to the Let’s Move Blaine! mandate to promote healthy lifestyles, Oplinger’s programming echoes and reinforces that making healthy choices is key.
The club has adapted new nutritional guidelines, and offers snacks that contain food from at least two food groups. “We try to get in as much produce as possible,” Oplinger said. “It’s always a challenge because of cost and storage.”
The new curriculum also incorporates physical activities to keep the kids moving.
A move toward more structured programming with more measurable outcomes is high on Oplinger’s list, and she has made it a point to incorporate high-yield learning activities into the afternoon program. High-yield learning activities help students grow by allowing them to practice knowledge learned in school in a meaningful and hands-on way, and are often termed “fun with a purpose.”
“Sometimes you have to trick them into learning,” program coordinator Jeffrey Rodriguez said.
Students can also participate in “Power Hour,” where they receive homework help from adult mentors and are rewarded for their efforts. The facility is equipped with computers provided by a grant, making it easy for students to complete homework early in the afternoon.
“It’s a little bit like school, but not quite as structured,” Oplinger said.
Oplinger aims to make the curriculum more culturally inclusive. During their “Here, There, Everywhere Week,” students researched countries and planned activities and food to complement the lessons.
“Some of these kids have perhaps never left Whatcom County – even to expose them to a little bit is great,” Oplinger said.
“We’re constantly adapting to the kids,” Rodriguez said. “They change so we change.”
In addition to the after-school educational programming, the Blaine Boys & Girls Club coordinates flag and tackle football leagues as well as basketball leagues. Through both programs, the club has an astounding membership of more than 600 students.
Oplinger says she can’t take all the credit for the improvements, as there were a lot of changes in process before she was hired. Increased cooperation between county clubs and branch directors really opened the door for Oplinger to help reshape what the Blaine branch was all about. “My staff is excellent,” Oplinger adds. “I didn’t come up through the clubs, so they are a great help.”
Even though she’s updating the programming, spending a little more on food to provide healthy snacks, and offering more field trips to attendees, Oplinger is committed to keeping costs low. Right now membership for afternoon programming per child is $30 a year, which does not even come close to what it takes to fund the club.
“I didn’t realize it until I became the director,” Oplinger, a longtime parent of students in the program, said. “The actual cost per child is more than 10 times [what we charge]. That’s where I come in.” Oplinger’s background in fundraising made her an excellent candidate for the position. Much of the club’s budget comes from the community’s generosity and grants from foundations, nonprofit and for-profit organizations.
The students have also noticed the changes Oplinger’s presence has made. “The kids aren’t so bully-like anymore because Diana talks to them,” said 11-year-old Rhianna Guzman. “There’s more activities, too.”
Afternoon programming at the Blaine Boys &âGirls Club runs weekdays from 2:30 to 6 p.m., and morning programming from 7 to 9 a.m for an additional cost. The club is located at 635 8th Street in Blaine, and has an extension campus in Birch Bay. Volunteers are welcomed and encouraged. For info, call 332-2008.