At the John Avery Boys & Girls Club, beyond the pool tables and balls bouncing in the gym, simple messages on the walls greet the children.
Along with photos on pin-up boards showcasing the Youth of the Month, there is a quote from the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt:
“Believe you can and you are halfway there,” it says.
This year, the club celebrates 75 years of helping children “believe” through education, recreation and mentoring.
One of the oldest clubs in the state, John Avery Boys & Girls Club is marking the milestone with several events, including a golf tournament at The Preserve at Jordan Lake in September.
The celebration culminates in a black-tie gala at the downtown Marriott in October.
The club has served hundreds of kids weekly at its 808 E. Pettigrew St. location for more than 40 years. Executive director Jerome Levisy said the club is now reaching out to past members to share their stories.
The early history is, at times, cloudy.
In the spring of 1939, Mamie Dowd Walker, judge for Durham’s juvenile court, asked Durham’s Committee on Negro Affairs to find a solution for juvenile delinquency. A temporary Boys Club was formed that May.
The following spring, the club was named the John Avery Boys Club to honor John Moses Avery.
According to records at N.C. Mutual Insurance, the club’s namesake came to Durham in the late 1800s to work with the company, where he eventually became vice-president and director.
There is no evidence that he was involved with the club’s founding. However, Avery was known to have started a children’s school in western North Carolina, according to the Museum of Durham History.
He died in 193,1 and Avery Street, located between Linwood Avenue and Burnette Street near Hayti, is reportedly named after him.
By the mid-1940s; the club was officially a member of The Boys Club of America. After opening on Branch Street in the 1950s, it moved to Fayetteville Street before finally moving again to Pettigrew Street.
Levisy said the club is looking for alumni who can help fill in some history and possibly participate in a documentary.
“We’re looking for family members of people who started John Avery and also want to recognize key alumni,” he said.
Other local families associated with the club’s early days include Stewarts and Frasiers. Also included is the Lee Smith Jr. family – the club’s official name is the Lee W. Smith Jr. Complex – and families connected to NCCU stand-out Leroy Walker.
The club’s gym was named the Dr. Leroy T. Walker gymnasium in 1997.
“Our hope is to have them (family members) serve on a planning committee, lay out a historical perspective and to speak for a brief documentary film to be used for years to come,” Levisy said.
Levisy also hopes to increase community visibility and find about 70 more volunteers to help the club.
For some residents, the club is already visible.
Kasib Abdullah runs New Visions of Africa community restaurant on Fayetteville Street and has participated in summer feeding programs at the John Avery Boys and Girls Club for years.
“We lost these things in our community years ago,” Abdullah said. “I’m glad to see it’s thriving.”
Elizabeth Poindexter works with Durham Cares, an advocacy agency that connects residents to service and developmental opportunities, and said the club’s staff and mentors are committed to building relationships with city youth.
“Showing someone that they matter and have value can be the difference it takes to change a life,” she said.
A product of the Henderson, N.C., Boys & Girls Club himself, Levisy hopes to someday add a separate teen center and expand into northern Durham County.
“Kids and families out there need our services, too,” he said.