Time of Boys & Girls Club’s groundbreaking makes point

MILFORD – There’s a reason Thursday’s official groundbreaking of the new Boys & Girls Club of Souhegan Valley facility was held at 4 p.m. – and it wasn’t to accommodate high-profile attendees Sen. Judd Gregg and Gov. Craig Benson.

“Look at your watches,” Richard Lowney, president of the club’s board of directors, told the roughly 100 people who showed up for the ceremony. “This is the time of day, 3 to 6, when too many kids are at risk . . . out of school and without adult supervision.”

“Imagine the Verizon Center with a sold-out hockey game. . . . That’s how many kids are being let out of our schools every day just in the Souhegan Valley,” said Lowney, who is CEO of Clearview Software in Amherst. “That’s why the Boys & Girls Club is here.”

If all goes well, it will be a lot more of a club by June 1, 2005, when officials hope to open the expanded and renovated building on Mont Vernon Street that hugs the Souhegan River.

The Boys & Girls Club’s board, along with Gregg and Benson, tossed ceremonial shovels of dirt Thursday to get work going at the former home of the defunct American Stage Festival.

Club volunteers were effusive in their praise of Gregg, whose involvement with the organization dates back to its inception a decade ago. He got federal funds from the Department of Justice to get the club going.

The rundown ASF building is already being used for some community events. After the planned $2.6 million worth of work is finished, it should burst with activity as the new home of the local Boys & Girls Club that now meets in a former hardware store on Elm Street.

The move was made possible after Paul and Nancy Amato, owners of Alene Candles, bought the building and almost seven acres two years ago for $475,000 and gave it to the club. Since then, they and other locals, including developer Steve Desmarais, have been “twisting arms” in the region to raise funds.

There’s still roughly $1 million to go, Paul Amato said Thursday, not so subtly nudging people to give more. A move by Gregg, putting $350,000 for the construction as a line item in the 2005 fiscal year federal budget, should help.

Much of the hour-long ceremony was a celebration of children, including about 75 who came from the club’s after-school program and impressed everybody by sitting quietly in the tent through a series of speeches – though they did join in loud cheers for the Red Sox.

Many of the speakers marveled at how far the club has come since it started 10 years ago with three volunteers helping a handful of kids at an after-school program held at the Milford Armory of the Army National Guard.

“We had to move all the tanks out of the way,” said Desmarais.

As an adjunct of the Nashua Boys & Girls Club, it expanded to the Grange on Webster Street in 1998, and then moved as a full-fledged club of its own into the former Aubuchon Hardware at Granite Town Plaza in 2000.

Membership has grown from 35 kids to 446, said Executive Director Dave Parker, with scores more participating in programs that have stretched as far as Peterborough.

“Milford is a classic example of a community coming together,” said Gregg during a short speech. “All these kids are going to have a much better life because you folks take time to get involved, and because there’s a Boys & Girls Club.”