The freshly minted CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Los Angeles (BGCMLA), Calvin L. Lyons, is a prime example of defying the odds to reach success. Growing up as one of five sons raised by a single mother in Gary, Indiana, Lyons was encouraged to get involved in a special program for preschoolers at the public housing project where they lived.
It was there that he learned to read and was inspired to excel in school, going on to become high school valedictorian and setting the bar for his future success. His time as a youth at the local Boys and Girls Club, which was only for young men at that time, holds fond memories for him and was also an important part of his development.
The mentorship he received through the clubs profoundly influenced his decision to dedicate his efforts to youth development, albeit via a circuitous route. After graduating with his B.S. from Purdue University, he worked at McDonnell Douglas (now the Boeing Company) in Southern California as well as at Washington Mutual (now Chase) in senior human resources and diversity roles.
While working in the aerospace industry, he received a tap on the shoulder from Boeing leadership. “They told me, ‘We want you to go into underserved communities in Los Angeles and tell kids to stay in school.’ I replied, ‘What? I’m selling $60 million jets.’ I didn’t see the connection. They said, ‘You have the wherewithal and the personality to make this happen.’ I did it, changed the channel, and I haven’t looked back.
”Prior to joining BGCMLA, Lyons led the nation’s third-largest Boys and Girls Clubs headquartered in Seattle, Washington’s King County (42 sites, $18M budget) for nearly five years. While there, he tirelessly tackled organizational silos to build a team to collaborate for deeper impact on the children they served.
Coming Full Circle
“I’m more than honored to come back and work in the largest Boys and Girls Club market in the country. The potential we have to serve over a million kids is simply amazing,” he says.Since taking his post at BGCMLA in July, he’s already set his sights on improving the lives and futures of LA youths through servant leadership and effective programming. “I have a chance to invest in kids [daily] as a profession, and I can’t see myself doing anything else,” he says.
His key to successfully connecting with children in the programs hails from his work experience in aerospace and other youth development programs. “I learned to measure everything, especially pro-gram impact, and found it to be the differentiator for what worked and what did not,” he says.
“I have a chance to invest in kids [daily] as a profession, and I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
Growing up in Gary was no picnic. A hardened Midwest city of nearly 120,000 at that time that regularly tallied the nation’s highest per capita murder rate, Lyons faced life’s stark realities early on. The passing of his eldest brother – who at age 21 fell asleep while driving – left the 18-year-old Lyons devastated. In the face of this tragedy, Lyons learned how to bounce back with resiliency and move forward. While strongly acknowledging that there are much better ways to learn, Lyons discovered that “tragedy and traumas could be used as tools and stepping stones to growth.”
When Lyons was introduced to chess during middle school, he embraced a lifelong hobby that has influenced the person he is today. “Chess literally changed my life,” Lyons states. A col-lector of chess boards from around the world, he knows how helpful chess can be with strategic thinking, visualization, critical thinking, and self-regulation.
Changing With the Times
Founded in 1860, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America have long sought to inspire and enable all youth, especially those in the most need, to realize their full potential as productive and responsible community members. Times have changed but, as the largest site-based youth development organization world-wide, The Boys and Girls Clubs have a unique model by which they seek opportunities to work collaboratively to serve more children for deeper impact in large metro areas.
To that end, BGMLA recently merged several clubs to become a collaboration of three long-time existing clubs and one new club, Nickerson Gardens, with several others in negotiations to come aboard. This new structure will allow the organization to leverage resources more efficiently. The recent gift of a technology bundle of tablets and notebooks – from LA Clippers point guard Chris Paul with CDW, Lenovo, and GOLFZON will help modernize the technology lab that many more youths can now access given than the new structure.The Boys and Girls Clubs’ Formula for Impact addresses the question, “How do they graduate from high school with a plan for success? How does a young per-son learn to give back to their community?” It includes a wellness component and a “push to support academic success, good character and citizenship, and a healthy lifestyle,” Lyons says. Programs such as Summer Brain Gain, which helps children avoid summer learning loss, or Power Hour, which provides time for afterschool homework, are helping youth keep up with their peers.
Lyons also plans to ensure his staff are getting professional development so they know how best to mentor the youth in their care and effectively ignite a thirst for knowledge. “A caring adult in the life of a child is critical,” Lyons says. “If a child has an adult who they know cares about them, mentoring them, then their chances of success in life are vastly increased.”
Lyons credits his wife of more than 30 years, Julie, who has a Masters in social work, as his sounding board. “My wife is amazing,” Lyons says. “We are both foster/adoptive parents and speak the same youth development language. We hear the same stories and work together to create community-building work.”Lyons is grateful to several mentors who played a key role in his own development. CEO of Aegis Living Dwayne Clark, whose organization is a leader in senior assisted living and memory care facilities, is a great friend who brings between 80-100 club kids to his home in an exclusive area of Seattle every Christmas. “Not only [is he] philanthropic, he grew up as a club kid in Idaho and coached at one of the King’s County clubs for ten years,” Lyons explains. He also counts Dick DiCerchio, retired COO of Costco, and Dr. John Lavelle as influential friends and coaches.
Looking ahead, Lyons sees the preparation of the next generation of leaders as critical. “At Boys and Girls Clubs, we take it very seriously. Having the support of the community as we build collaborative energy is important. If we don’t prepare the next generation of leaders, where is that going to land our nation?”