THOMASVILLE — The Marguerite Neel Williams Boys and Girls Club celebrated 20 years of serving local youth Tuesday night — with plans to continue and improve what it’s done over its first two decades.

Approximately 300 people filed into the Boys and Girls Club gym as part of the organization’s annual event, marking where the club has come from and where it wants to grow.

“We are a strong club,” said Marvin Dawson, who chairs the Marguerite Neel Williams Boys and Girls Club board of directors. “We have a staff that works tirelessly, because they love it.”

With several of the club’s alumni and many of its current members among the audience, Executive Director Lee Wagner said the club was happy to be celebrating its 20th anniversary and to be recognizing 20 years of service to the community’s youth.

“We know we would not have come this far without you,” he said. “This would not have been possible with each and every one of you.”

The club is named in honor of Williams, a Thomasville resident and benefactor who pushed for the club’s formation. Alston Watt, one of Williams’ granddaughters, said her grandmother would have chafed at having the club named after her. Williams passed away just days before the club began operating.

“To be honest, Marguerite would never have accepted this noble gesture if she had lived,” she said. "She did not believe in having her name on something. She felt for the club to be successful, it needed to be of the community and for the community and not about an individual. She believed if it was the right thing to do, then that was justification enough for doing it. Naming opportunities did not impress Marguerite. Accolades just did not motivate her.”

Her grandmother, Watt said, was the embodiment of the Greek adage “the true meaning of life is to plant a tree under whose shade you don’t ever expect to sit.”

“We are all enjoying that shade,’ Watt said.

Williams saw a need for the Boys and Girls Club in Thomasville but was asked if it was necessary and if it was redundant, Watt pointed out.

“Marguerite subscribed to the notion that all children are collectively our children,” Watt said. “What she wanted for her children and grandchildren, she wanted for revery child in Thomas County. Enter Marguerite’s x-ray vision to see what others could not. She was willing to challenge the status quo and that’s all the children’s needs were not being met.”

The Boys and Girls Club opened in a warehouse behind O’Neal’s. There were 78 children in that warehouse, without air conditioning, on May 18, 1999.

“Quickly, the community realized we really did need a Boys and Girls Club,” Watt said.

The Youth Center opened in late 1999, and the club’s membership burgeoned from 78 to more than 300 a day, Watt noted.

“Expansion was no longer an aspiration. It was a necessity,” Watt said. 

The Teen Center, first envisioned in 2005, opened in 2007. Ten years ago, the Jackie Robinson Boys and Girls Club opened in Cairo to serve children there.

“The tree continues to grow,” Watt said, "and the shade continues to expand and the fruits are plentiful.”

Willie Clayton credited the Boys and Girls Club for helping him become who he is today.

Clayton played college basketball at the University of North Carolina Charlotte for three years and played one year at Georgia State University. He graduated from Georgia State with a degree in sociology and was named an academic all-American. He also was named the GSU academic MVP for all sports.

“I was one of those children who loved to fight growing up,” he said. “So when my mom made me join, I didn’t see a place for myself at the Boys and Girls Club at the time. But the Boys and Girls Club had people who were giving me chance after chance. The core values of the Boys and Girls Club have always stuck with me.”

Currently, Clayton plays for the Manchester Giants in the British Basketball League.

“I have a spectacular life and I love it,” he said. “The Boys and Girls Club didn’t give up on me, so I won’t give up on them."

The club is in the quiet phase of a capital campaign — one of the goals is improving the gym — Watt said.

“This gym is showing a little wear and tear of 20 years of lots of loving by literally tens of thousands of youth who come here every day after school and all day during the summer,” she said. “So come back next year and I’m sure you will see some changes.”

Williams often asked what the most dangerous time of a child’s life is and the answer she got back was often an age, Watt said. But that time, to Williams, was from 3-7 in the afternoon every day, when school is out and parents may not be home from work yet.

“This is the time when young people aren’t looking for trouble, but trouble often finds them,” Watt said. “This is where the Boys ann Girls Club makes a true and lasting impact. It’s the skills and character development. It’s about developing future citizens and leaders. It’s about what my grandmother wanted her grandchildren and all children to aspire to.”

Watt said her grandmother would be pleased with the club and its progress in 20 years. Her challenge to the audience was what tree were they planting for the future.

“We live in polarizing times, and Thomas County is not immune,” Watt said. “We have lost our empathy and respect for different perspectives and points of view. 

“Thomasville has always done better. If we put our community, and more importantly the children of our community at the fore of every decision we make, then we can be just like Marguerite."

Dawson said the community will continue to grow and will continue to fight for the best for each other.

“All that matters is your heart and what you do to help somebody else,” he said. “That’s what makes us so unique. We do things other communities can’t do.” 

Editor Pat Donahue can be reached at (229) 226-2400 ext. 1806.