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The Boys & Girls Club gives everybody a head start, even big-mouthed Italian kids.

One of my favorite old-fashioned liberal bumper stickers is the one about how if the world were fair, teachers would have all the money they need for their classrooms and the Air Force would have to hold a bake sale to buy their latest jet. Along those lines, I've always felt that if the world were fair, we'd have a scarcity of liquor stores and, at the same time, a Boys & Girls Club chapter in every neighborhood.

I mentioned this the other day to a friend of mine who lives up near Sabino High School and he said, incredulously, "Why would we need a Boys (& Girls) Club up here?" I paused for a few seconds to allow him to realize that his racism was showing. This is like when a guy has forgotten to zip up his pants, only far more embarrassing and with devastating long-range ramifications. Alas, his is actually the prevailing attitude, that B&GC chapters are reserved for neighborhoods with populations consisting of a high concentration of minorities and people at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder.

But in this day and age of throwaway kids and two-income families, a place for kids to go to play and learn and just hang out should be welcome anywhere. Put it this way: With their parents too busy making money to keep an eye on them, don't you think that Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris would have been far better off going to a Boys & Girls Club after school instead of heading for the basement full of pipe bombs, computers and trench coats?

No matter how much you might hate Hillary Clinton (and you'd better be careful because she's going to be President someday and she's keeping a long-ass list of names in the meantime), she was right about all that "It takes a village" stuff. I grew up with a stay-at-home mom, a hard-working dad and six sisters, and it still took an army of teachers, coaches, priests, nuns, administrators, cops and Boys Club workers to keep me on the straight and narrow. I got slapped upside the head so many times, I could have registered my cranium as a musical instrument. Fortunately, half of the head-slappers were left-handed so I don't have a permanent sideward list. It's like the conservation of angular momentum; all the forces just sort of canceled out.

We had a Boys & Girls Club back in my old neighborhood, although in those days it was simply called the Boys Club; the Girls part wasn't added until after I had moved on to semi-adulthood. As a matter of fact, I'm not even sure they let girls in back in the old days. It was sort of like the U.S. Senate.

Our Boys Club was in a storefront right next to the black Muslims meeting hall. That's where I would see some of the old neighborhood knuckleheads who were suddenly wearing stiff bow ties and putting "37X" after their first names.

The Club was funded by a War on Poverty program and run by VISTA volunteers (VISTA meaning "Volunteers In Service To America," and being an organization that acted as something of a domestic Peace Corps). This means that the workers were, for the most part, white kids who were acting on a mixture of altruism and liberal guilt, heading down into the ghetto to "help those people."

(I remember the look of disappointment that a couple of them had when they had to deal with me, what with their having come all that way to meet real black people and then having to settle for "only an Italian." If they got too disappointed, I'd take them next door and introduce them to the former Melvin, who would be more than happy to explain to the white devil what each of those 37 Xs stood for.)

A lot has changed over the years. Club chapters now all have gymnasiums and computer stations, game rooms and places for arts and crafts. The Club has evolved into a source of great social good and is constantly working to meet the ever-growing demand in a society where kids have been sadly devalued.

This Saturday night is one of the big events of the year for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tucson. It's the 10th annual Sean Elliott Steak 'N' Burger Dinner, a time when Club staff, board members and volunteers gather with many of the good people of Tucson to honor the top boys and girls of the four local B&GC chapters. It has become a Tucson institution, one that many hope will continue long after Sean has hung up his sneakers and moved on to the United States Congress or that job at Denny's; he hasn't made up his mind.

"I'm keeping my options open," says Sean. Yeah, well, you shouldn't have left Kobe Bryant open.

Several young people will be honored at the dinner, including Youth of the Year Award winner Leticia Moran. Both of Leticia's parents were born in Mexico and both were born deaf. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for Leticia, who has a rare insight into a silent world and is considering a career in teaching and interpreting for the deaf.

Besides being a good student, Leticia also finds time to cook for and serve families staying at the Ronald McDonald House, volunteer at the soup kitchen, participate in a wide variety of charitable fund-raising activities, help organize Easter egg hunts, talent shows and other activities for the younger kids at the Club and hold down a part-time job.

As always, this thing has been sold out for weeks. Sean usually brings a surprise guest or two from the NBA, tells a few Lute Olson jokes, gives away some killer door prizes and then sits there and signs the T-shirt or basketball of every kid in the place.

It's one of the great nights in Tucson and here's hoping that there will be a 50th annual Steak 'n Burger Dinner someday.

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