AKRON — At the start of the pandemic, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio's 39 locations closed and virtual programming was offered.
When it became clear last fall that schools wouldn't be operating in a standard fashion, the nonprofit figured out ways to assist kids at the limited number of Boys & Girls Clubs that had reopened, plus 16 ClubSmart Learning Centers. There, students learning remotely received in-person and technical support.
"We literally had partners come and put additional electrical throughout our gyms and drop down cords so that we could put in stations," said Jeff Scott, who was named BGCNEO's CEO in April 2020. "Imagine 60 kids sitting in a gym at a desk. We didn't have a way to plug in all those laptops."
Mr. Scott said there are 152,000 kids living in poverty in the region. The local Boys & Girls Clubs serve about 10,000.
"It's not enough," he said. "So how do we do more?"
Bridgestone Americas, which has been a big supporter of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, is trying to do its part. Bridgestone Retail Operations, a subsidiary of the Nashville-based tire and rubber company, announced on June 23 that it has donated $100,000 to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio. The donation was announced at Firestone Country Club in Akron, where the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship is being held this week.
The funds will go toward BGCNEO's efforts to bridge the digital divide. The organization said the donation will be used for equipment, enhanced internet access, hotspots and other digital tools.
"It's huge," Mr. Scott said.
A 2020 analysis of census data said Cleveland was the worst-connected U.S. city with more than 100,000 households. Nearly 31% of the households in the city didn't have broadband access, and 46% had no wired connection.
As more clubs open this fall — Mr. Scott said the goal is all 39 will be in operation, with hopefully more to come — the Bridgestone donation will help kids keep pace academically.
"We're definitely going to use it to continue to keep our foot on the gas, to curb the digital divide," Mr. Scott said.
The organization, for example, already has a digital curriculum and learning management system in place. So, when a kid needs help with his or her homework, there's already a process in place that makes for a smooth transition, the organization's CEO said.
"We really, really believe that we'll be a huge part of the solution," Mr. Scott said. "Now, kids can't catch up in a summer, they probably can't catch up in a year. But anything we can do to help curb that, we're going to do."
Another piece, the CEO added, is more access to digital tools can get kids started on a path to tech-based careers.
"Kids love gaming, and gaming is step one to coding," Mr. Scott said. "Why not give kids all the same opportunities to be successful in a digital economy? It's not just academics. It bleeds into the workforce later on."
Bridgestone's donation to the local Boys & Girls Clubs is "not just about writing a check," said Robert Johnson, the vice president of stores for the company's retail operations.
"We are really committed to the BGCA across the nation with Bridgestone, and this is a continuation of that," Mr. Johnson added.
Bridgestone said it raised $3.6 million for BGCA last year. Since 2015, the company has contributed $15.3 million to the organization as part of its Driving Great Futures program.
"As we get to see the impact of the relationship and the impact that BGCA has on the lives of kids and the potential for them to be successful in the future, it's incredibly gratifying," Mr. Johnson said. "We've got teammates on my team nationally that were club kids and are really successful and have made it their life. They're really passionate about it."
Bridgestone has 11 stores in the region, and its technical center in Akron employs more than 700. Announcing the donation at Firestone was fitting, since Bridgestone has sponsored a professional golf tournament at the club since 2006 and the tournament has had a considerable impact on local charities.
Mr. Scott, a former VP of strategy at KeyBank, is obviously thrilled with Bridgestone's six-figure contribution. But BGCNEO's chief executive stressed that a ton more has to be done, and more people and organizations have to get involved.
"Cleveland is just such an amazing community," Mr. Scott said. "And it's No. 1 for child poverty. And No. 1 for lack of digital access. That's not cool by me. And the business community, it's not cool by them. We gotta figure out how to solve it together."