By Dustin Brown
Mel Campos has stood at the helm of the Variety Boys & Girls Club in Astoria for only a month, but his vision for the youth center is already shaping into something grand.
“I want the Variety Boys & Girls Club to be seen as the premier youth development organization in the borough of Queens,” the newly installed executive director said during a recent interview at the nearly 50-year-old club, at 21st Street and 30th Road.
To that end he has set two goals for Variety – to attract more members and increase its budget – at a time when most organizations are struggling not to lose ground in the face of the city's fiscal troubles.
“Increasing the budget is going to be the challenge, finding funders who want to invest in youth and understand the value of a Boys & Girls Club,” Campos acknowledged.
But attracting more members has already proven to be a rewarding task. “We have new kids coming in every day,” he said.
Campos hopes to see the current enrollment of about 1,100 jump to 3,000.
As if the $12 fee for a year's worth of after-school programs were not already a steal, Campos is offering children free membership until June 22 to give them a chance to try out the place without having to lay down any money.
In addition to school-year activities that run from 2:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. weekdays and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, Variety also offers a daily summer camp for approximately $15 a week.
“Hopefully, they'll come for the summer and keep coming,” Campos said. “They will see it as a tremendous value.”
Campos is replacing Dayan Majaraj, who left the club last summer.
He assumed control at a time when the club was already undergoing a dramatic transformation. A senior housing complex funded by the state is scheduled to break ground on the Variety property next month, while an addition to house the Raices Senior Center is expected to be completed by July. The senior center currently operates in Variety's all-purpose room and theater, and its move will free the space for more youth programs.
A native of the Bronx, Campos is an alumnus of two Boys & Girls Club programs in that borough, where he played basketball and ping-pong.
“It was a Boys Club at the time, so it was a long time ago,” he recalled. “I learned about teamwork, I learned about commitment, I learned about responsibility, being on time, doing your best at all times.
“It kind of became part of who I was,” he continued. “It just was a really good place for a kid to develop. I had no idea that this is what I'd do when I grow up.”
Campos has followed an eclectic career path that began at age 15 when he got a job from his father, who ran the shipping department for a women's clothing manufacturer in Manhattan's garment district.
“He hired me as the guy who pushed the racks down Seventh Avenue,” he said. “I definitely realized real quick that that was not what I wanted to do the rest of my life.”
He moved onto an assortment of jobs: managing a bank branch, working for a youth development program, running a paramilitary organization and directing a few hundred volunteers for the 1996 Olympics.
But he eventually landed in Philadelphia to run four Boys & Girls Clubs, heading to Albany a year later to serve as the executive director for the organization's clubs there – a post he held for the past five years.
Then a few months ago he heard from his superiors: They wanted him to move to Queens.
“The thing that really piqued my interest was the wide range of different kids,” Campos said. “The diversity of the place was awesome.”
The focus of the Boys & Girls Clubs has changed since the time Campos played basketball there, with the emphasis now placed on education in all of Variety's programs, which range from dance, drama and martial arts to tutoring, computers and basketball.
“While they're having fun,” Campos said, “we sneak education in through the back door.”
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.