More than 85 individuals, government officials and business leaders of Forsyth County attended a groundbreaking ceremony for the Tommy & Chantal Bagwell Club in Cumming on Thursday, Sept. 9. The club, slated to open in fall of 2022, is an extension of Boys & Girls Club Lanier, or BGCL, and will serve 300 kids in grades K-12 after school and during the summer.
Tommy Bagwell, longtime owner and chief executive officer of American Proteins and longtime philanthropist, alongside his family and wife Chantal, donated the money necessary to build and furnish the new 21,000-square-foot facility complete with outdoor area such as playgrounds, multi-purpose fields and walking trails.
Steven Mickens, chief executive officer of BGCL, said that he was thankful for the “tremendous opportunity” to open the first standalone club in Cumming.
“This has been a long time coming, but I can tell you that the passion and the love for this community was evident when you met with that United Way board and some of the leaders around this community,” Mickens said. “I’m very thankful for that.”
Mickens said that he believed kids have recently “sort of lost their way” due to the pandemic, and he is hopeful that the club will be able to help kids bridge the gap between learning loss and socialization skills.
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Ruth Goode, executive director of United Way Forsyth, said that she was “so excited” to share the plans for the new facility and explained a little bit of the background behind the project.
Goode said that the dream for the project manifested in 2012 when she and Judi Jenkins, business and community relations facilitator at Forsyth County Schools, began working together on a grant to have Forsyth County named as one of the Top 100 best communities in the nation for young people.
She said that through preparing for the grant, she and Jenkins began to explore the facets that could be improved upon in the community, such as after school programs and summer camps that are affordable for families.
Goode said that the idea of affordable programs sat for a while between the staff at United Way Forsyth, but in 2017, she took it before the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, and in 2018, a sect of BGCL began operating out of Cumming Elementary School.
Goode said that between the three years of operation at Cumming Elementary, kids’ reading and math scores went up, as well as their social skills and other social emotional learning capacities.
Jasmin Gaudlock, a former BGCL alumna, shared her personal testimony about how the club influenced her life and shaped her into the person she is today.
She said that she first began attending club activities when she was 12, but when she was around 16, her family suddenly experienced homelessness.
“It was a hard time in life,” Gaudlock said. “I struggled with it because I felt like there were so many obstacles that were getting in our way every time we’d try to find somewhere to live, but I was able to overcome these obstacles with help from the Boys and Girls Club.”
Gaudlock said that the club taught her valuable life lessons like positivity and perseverance, and that the “staff didn’t give up on me even when I wanted to give up on myself.”
Years later in 2018, Gaudlock found herself back at the club after her mother was in a “horrible car accident” that left her paralyzed. She said she didn’t know what to do, but at the time was seeking employment at the club because it was a “safe haven” for her.
Since then, Gaudlock has graduated as a first-generation graduate from the University of North Georgia and has been working as a fourth-grade teacher. She currently tutors others at Boys & Girls Club Lanier in Gainesville after school hours.
Bagwell spoke about his own involvement with the club, quoting “The Prophet” by the Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran.
“You give but little when you give of your possessions,” Gibran wrote. “It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”
While Bagwell said that giving money is important when donating to causes or charity, he credited the success of the project to those that have “ever done anything anywhere” helping youth by donating time, energy and resources.
Bagwell said his passion for helping youth stemmed from the training he received from his parents about “people that may not have the equal opportunity that we pride ourself [on] in this nation.”
“Yes, you can be a Dr. Ben Carson … you can do it,” Bagwell said. “But if you’re in a single-parent household and nobody in that household has an education and probably not even through high school, …you don’t have equal opportunity.”
Bagwell said that the word “equity” has been “thrown around a lot and misunderstood,” but he explained that the “whole point” of it all is about “equity of opportunity.”
“If this is going to remain the land of true opportunity, we need to work to make sure that we’re opening doors to the churning of opportunity of not seeing dynasties that just remain a dynasty by doing absolutely nothing,” Bagwell said. “We need to open doors, help train, help tutor, help every way you can. It’s in your own best interest to do that.”
Bagwell referenced the French Revolution, saying that people solved the gap in equal opportunity by “just [cutting] everybody’s heads off and [distributing] the stuff.”
Bagwell joked that if people wanted to “keep [their] heads,” they needed to “strive as a nation” to create equal opportunities for all, starting with the youth.
He shared a personal connection, speaking about a time when he learned that an ancestor of his was on the “poor children’s register” when he was in school.
Bagwell said that at first, he didn’t know what that meant. But after some digging, he realized that it meant someone else in the community was paying for him to go to school because his family could not afford the cost.
“And then look where I ended up [today],” Bagwell said.
Bagwell encouraged the people in the audience to “keep [equal opportunity] in the back of your mind” and to fight for “providing great futures for young people.”
Cindy Jones Mills, chairwomon of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, said that she hoped “children with totally different family backgrounds, ethnicities, education levels, hopes and dreams” could use the facility in the future to gather, learn from one another and make lasting friendships.
“It may be an empty lot … today, but when construction gets started, it’s hard to see the impact that this place is going to have and that it will truly change lives,” Mills said.
“[And] I encourage this community to not stop here,” she said. “…We all can do our part to ensure every child has access to resources and role models, and they are putting them on the path to great futures.”The Tommy & Chantal Bagwell Boys & Girls Club is at 2150 Antioch Road in Cumming.