The John Avery
Boys and Girls Club

by: Aaron Ambroso

The John Avery Boys and Girls Club is situated off of Pettigrew Street, slightly southeast of downtown Durham.  Kids play in the gym and outside in a square field.  Some staff members relax away from the kids for the moment, enjoying those brief minutes of rest and solitude cherished by anyone who knows what it’s like to work at a summer camp.


Founded in 1939, the John Avery Boys and Girls Club was the first African-American Boys and Girls Club in the United States, a remarkable historical precedent. A North Carolina native, John Avery was a school principle and later an executive at the NC Mutual Life Company, known for its emphasis on social outreach. The Club will soon be renamed as the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Durham, to suggest its connection with the national association The Boys and Girls Clubs of America. (The club’s original location was demolished for the Durham Freeway.)

The Boys and Girls Clubs of America have traditionally focused on helping children who grow up in disadvantaged areas. The Club is run by a mixture of staff and volunteers who work together to teach classes and mentor students. Every year the Durham club sees nearly five hundred kids in its afterschool and summer camp programs.

At the Boys and Girls Club, kids between ages six and eighteen participate in a variety of programs from sports, fine arts, and education to gang prevention, and community service. This year, some of the kids have adopted a highway or worked at the local food bank, and others are teaming up with Burt’s Bees to plant a garden in the front yard of the Club.

The John Avery Boys and Girls Club in Lakewood

The John Avery Boys and Girls Club in Lakewood

The volunteers and staff get a lot of positivity from the Boys and Girls Club’s environment and culture. Now a coach and teacher at the Boys and Girls Club, David Fretwell – who goes by DJ – first got involved at the Club as a student at North Carolina Central University. DJ became a staff member in 2012, and he now works closely with the third through fifth graders. He helps them with homework, physical exercise, and leads academic activities to make learning a more enjoyable experience. Although he originally thought he’d be teaching history classes, DJ said that as a volunteer he loved working with the kids so much that he decided to become a full time staff member.

Kids have grown-up and matured at the Boys and Girls Club, DJ said. Speaking about one youngster in particular, DJ said that being at the Club caused him to become more interested in things like college and bettering his education, and improved his maturity and focus. Providing a safe environment after school, teaching kids about drug prevention, and the care and love kids get at the Club are among the most important things the Club provides for its students and its community, DJ remarked.

I also got the chance to sit down and talk to the John Avery Boys and Girls Club Unit Director, Greg Green.  Above all, Green said that he really wants to see the city of Durham get behind the Boys and Girls Club financially. With the recent growth of the city, Green believes that a lot of people who could use the Club are moving up to north Durham. Around 60% of the Club’s funding comes from grants, leaving little opportunity for mobility or opening a new site. Wake County, Green observed, has a total of seven different Boys and Girls Clubs.

As research has shown, the prospects for kids growing up in poverty in the United States are sobering. In the United States today, around one in five children live in poverty. Additionally, whether or not a child grows up in poverty is one of the most important indicators as to whether that child will graduate high school on time. While 91% of students in affluent schools graduate on time, only 63% of those in “high poverty schools” do.[1]  Furthermore, a vast majority of the nation’s dropouts come from a small number of schools in which the graduation rate is 40 to 50%.  The overriding feature of these schools is that they are located in impoverished areas with high unemployment, incarceration rates, and health problems.[2]

Notoriously, schools in poor areas of the country are often underfunded due to the fact that one of the primary sources of funding for public schools is local taxes.  Schools in high poverty areas have the least experienced teachers, the most run-down buildings, the fewest extra-curricular activities, and the least amount of special help for students.[3]

Largely founded during Lyndon Johnson’s 1960s “War on Poverty,” government programs like food stamps and Medicare have helped to alleviate some of the worst consequences of poverty. Yet, one of the main gaps in these band-aid programs is a curative element, a strong initiative to help families get out of generational poverty, i.e. to help the children of those in lower socio-economic groups get the education they need to move up the economic ladder.  Nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Club are important institutions that try to fill that role. Durham is on the front lines of the battle.


[1] Cornel West and Tavis Smiley, The Rich and the Rest of Us (2012).

[2] “Facing the School Dropout Delimma,” The American Psychological Association.

[3] Jilia Cass, “Held Captive,” Children’s Defense Fund.



Aaron Ambroso is pursuing his Masters in Art History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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