McKeesport's Barry has deep roots with LaRosa Club
Forty years of involvement with LaRosa Boys & Girls Club has led lifelong McKeesporter Jim Barry to take on a leadership role in the city youth center.
He was named director in September, replacing interim director Robert Pochciol.
Barry, 49, was an elementary student when he became a member of the then-McKeesport Boys Club. Under the direction of Samuel R. LaRosa, the club preemptively embraced the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania's current motto, “Great futures start here.”
Barry remembers the environment as a home away from home, where recreation was used as a tool for self-development among youth.
“I went to the club because it was fun,” Barry said. “You end up learning a lot of life lessons there, but you don't realize that until you mature.”
A native of McKeesport's Sixth Ward, Barry and neighborhood friends saw the club as a safe, fun place to simply hang out.
“Mr. LaRosa lived right in our neighborhood, and he encouraged us to come to the club,” Barry said. “We learned how to interact with other kids. We learned respect and dignity and a lot of the things we're talking about in this city today.”
LaRosa Club's demographics indicate that membership is 87 percent African-American, with 68 percent from single-parent families and approximately half from families living at or below the poverty level.
While membership is not geographically or financially restrictive, Barry explained, the majority of the club's daily participants are members who otherwise are under-served members of the McKeesport community.
Since taking a hands-on role in the club with the start of the 2012-13 academic year, Barry has made connections with city youth and taught them to take ownership of the club to which they belong.
“They were leery at first, because I run a tight ship,” he said. “I command respect. I respect them, and I expect them to reciprocate that ... I have a very positive story to tell. I can tell them, ‘I grew up in this area, and I came up just like you. You can make it. You can be successful. You can have a future.'”
Barry said his new role is rewarding, because every day he knows he is making a positive change in a kid's life.
Giving back to hometown youth is what brought Barry back to the LaRosa club after his days as a member.
Enrolled through high school, Barry's only hiatus from the club was while attending Penn State University.
“After I graduated, I felt almost indebted to the club, because I knew then what it meant to me,” Barry said. “I realized all of the positive things I have learned.”
In his early- and mid-20s, Barry volunteered with club programs and coaching. He maintained a volunteer status during his own children's youth.
In 1994, Barry was appointed to the club's board of directors.
“The first meeting I attended was full of pretty prestigious businessmen who were all 20 or 30 years my elder,” he recalled. “(LaRosa) turns to me, hands me a pencil and says, ‘You're the secretary.' I didn't know what to do. I just wrote down everything that everyone was saying.”
Barry maintained his secretarial role until 2003, when LaRosa died and Barry was elevated to the chairman's position.
“There have been only two chairmen in the 67-year history of this club — (LaRosa) and me,” Barry said. “And his name is on the building, so it's something that means a lot to me.”
As chairman of the LaRosa Club, Barry was the local representative to the umbrella board for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. Today, he works under that umbrella as the executive vice president.
During a normal business day, he balances time with Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania CEO Mike Hepler in a downtown corporate office and various stops for his private-sector career as an insurance consultant with the TJ&S brokerage firm. His afternoons and evenings are spent at the club.
“The thing that was so appealing to me was having the opportunity to work in McKeesport and have an impact in my community,” Barry said. “I want to know how to run a club from the bottom up. Even though I was always intimately involved, I never really ran one. This is programming, scheduling, payroll, everything.”
Barry envisions the LaRosa club as the “flagship” of the Western Pennsylvania clubs. Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania includes eight standalone clubs, six mini clubs in rural elementary schools, one at a charter school in Pittsburgh, and a teen employment zone.
McKeesport's club boasts a membership of 900, with nearly 120 of those children on site daily.
“With the hundred or so kids who come in the club every day, I try to know each and every one of them by name, to know something about them, to know what their likes are, and to celebrate their uniqueness,” Barry said. “Because that's what Sam did. He knew something about you, and he celebrated that thing for you because every kid is different.”
With year-round sports programming and seasonal activities that complement schedules during the school year or summer months, Barry said the club is able to reach out to a broad group of children and teens.
“Sports programs historically have been the hook to get kids into the club, and then they experience other things,” he said.
Offering sports, educational and cultural components, the LaRosa club serves a variety of youth who come from different social backgrounds and dabble in a spectrum of activities, some of which are new.
“We have contemporary dance programs and things that we never had in the past,” Barry said. “I hate to say this, but we're a boys club that was retrofit for girls. We need to get more programs that are appealing to girls. We want them to have more things to do.”
The LaRosa Club has introduced a “No School, No Problem” program that opens the club during would-be school hours on scheduled off days. On regular school days, McKeesport Area School District now provides bus service directly to the club for nearly 90 students.
For members 12 and younger, programs run from 2-6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, with parents responsible for getting their kids home. For more information about LaRosa Boys & Girls Club, call 412-678-7070.
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or firstname.lastname@example.org.