Meet Janet Riley-Ford, Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club of Chester

Janet Riley-Ford is the Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club of Chester and an alumna of Widener University’s Master of Social Work program. The Boys & Girls Club is a  recreational center, meeting place for other nonprofits, and a place where youth can learn and grow as individuals through technology, sports, the arts, gardening, and other educational programming. It served more than 1,000 children last year with member programs, partner programs and special events.

Tell us about the Boys & Girls Club and its work in the community.

The Boys & Girls Club of Chester is a chartered member of the Boys and Girls Club of America (BGCA). The “club” as it is fondly known has been operating in Chester since 1930 and I have been its leader since May 2013. Our wide array of programming includes Power Hour, My.Future, Teen Leadership Council, 21st Century Community Learning Center, Drug Free Communities, Gardening & Nutrition, Scuba diving, 76ers Basketball League and more. We foster academic excellence, healthy lifestyles, good character and citizenship with help from our trained staff and volunteers.

Tell us about your role at the Chester Boys & Girls Club?

My role at the Boys &Girls Club of Chester is primarily as Executive Director, but it can vary daily. As a small nonprofit, my role includes engaging board members; adhering to the requirements of the BGCA; marketing and fundraising; ensuring program quality and the financial well-being of the club; writing grant reports; payroll; hiring qualified staff; engaging parents and volunteers; maintaining the facility; and most of all ensuring the safety of our youth members. Small nonprofits often don’t have the luxury of specified departments like accounting or human resources, so, as  executive director, I have had to tap into my social work training, allowing me to be flexible and adapt to the needs of the organization.

How long have you been a partner of Widener University?

The Boys & Girls Club has been affiliated with Widener University for over 20 years. I have been affiliated with Widener since 2003 when I was a MSW student. As an adult student and native of Chester, I appreciated the university’s commitment to civic engagement, service learning, and working in the community. As a Social Work Counseling Services intern at Community Hospital on 9th street (now located on campus), I had the opportunity to engage with adults and youth through counseling and other programs.  As a grad assistant, I was able to develop the Chester Children’s Art Fair, a shared project between Freeman Cultural Arts and Widener’s Social Work department. After graduating, I supervised MSW interns, participated on Widener University committees like the Violence Prevention Collaborative and Social Work Advisory Committee. I also worked as an adjunct for a few years. I always valued the civic engagement and service learning components at Widener, which continually highlighted the intersection of community, academia, and socio-cultural learning.

How did your Widener degree and experience inform your leadership work in the community?

What I appreciated about Widener, and not all universities do this, was how they supported me as an adult student. Professors enhanced my learning but also recognized the skills that I already possessed. They allowed me to develop projects and explore the Chester community in a different way. As an adult learner, I had a family and had worked in the field of social services for many years. Widener gave me confidence to believe in my own skills. Professors gave me the leeway to meet people where they were (person-in- environment) and build relationships. For example, as a Social Work Counseling Services intern, one year I worked out of a senior living housing location. This placement allowed me to not just deliver a service to that community, but to be a part of that community. Experiences like that strengthened my leadership skills.

How has the club’s relationship with Widener impacted your agency and the kids in Chester?

Overall, the relationship has been very positive. Widener’s PSC Bonner students and other interns have been wonderful. The PSC Bonner students get to know the Chester community on a deeper level and the Boys & Girls Club children see them in a more relatable and intimate way. Widener communications students have also assisted the club through capstone projects that have resulted in brochures, flyers and videos which have helped us tell our story. As a small nonprofit, we rely on our Widener volunteers. They build our capacity to help supervise, tutor, and provide life experiences we want our young people to have.

What opportunities can students take advantage of by working with the Boys & Girls Club? What do you think they learn from you?

I hope that university students learn integrity and mutual respect. Even though a student may only be here to help tutor youth, hopefully they understand the importance of integrity --  giving their best self --  and mutual respect. Respecting the young person, their family, and the staff in such a way that they validate who they are despite what the student’s preconceptions may have been. My hope is that students who are here understand the importance and humanity in being of service to each other. Hopefully, they learn to value people of any ethnicity or socio-economic level, and that it truly is a better world when we lead with compassion and respect.

Do you have any interesting stories from the club-university partnership?

I remember one year, when several PSC Bonner students returned from break, the excitement on their faces when they saw the kids was palpable. They called the kids by name and wanted to know everything that had happened while they were gone. Another time, a PSC Bonner student took the initiative to bring his guitar. He approached a student saying, “Let’s sit down and I’ll teach you how to play guitar.” Another time, students on break who lived nearby came back to participate over the holidays. They didn’t need more service hours. They came because they enjoyed the club and were committed to the kids. Those kinds of things warm my heart. To see them have fun along with the Boys & Girls Club youth is extraordinary.

Where do you see the relationship going in the future?

I hope that we can continue to build upon this partnership. we aren’t just providing an assembly line of students, coming in and out, but we are building lives from one year to the next. When Widener students start here on a particular project, we want them to stay on for the next year because they have the experience to teach the younger volunteers who are just starting. I appreciate the university’s role and open communication. I have the ability to be honest about the partnership regardless of the situation. For example, I feel comfortable saying that something isn’t working and know we can work together to find a solution. I am not worried about volunteers dropping out or ending the partnership. I hope that students will think about how they can contribute even more to the organization, the youth, and the community.

The Boys & Girls Club of Chester is located at 201 East 7th Street. Visit them online.

For more information about Social Work Counseling Services and Widener’s community clinic, click here.



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