Aiming to Boost Kids' Aspirations

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 15, 2005

Three months ago, Will A. Gunn was supervising 26 lawyers from a Pentagon office in Crystal City in one of the highest profile legal assignments in the country: defending terrorism suspects held by the U.S. government at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Today the 6-foot-7 career military lawyer faces what he says is an equally formidable challenge as he takes the reins at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, one of the region's oldest charities.

"When someone initially looks at my rsum, they say, 'Wow, this doesn't fit at all,' " said Gunn, 47. "That's because they don't know the off-duty side."

The Harvard-trained lawyer, who lives near Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County with his wife and three children, was drawn to mentoring young people and volunteering during his 25-year career in the Air Force. He serves on the board of directors of Christian Service Charities, a faith-based nonprofit for which he has coordinated workplace giving.

Now Gunn has set out to shore up the finances and expand the mission of the Boys & Girls Club, which hired him as chief executive in October to replace retiring director Pat Shannon. Gunn said he wants to raise the organization's profile to more than an after-school refuge for disadvantaged children with working or absent parents. The group's mission should be academics, leadership and character-building, he said.

"At one point in time we were known as a safe place for kids to go after school," Gunn said. "Now we're known as a positive place for kids. Now I want to take that up a notch, to give kids a tremendous boost with respect to their aspirations."

For starters, Gunn said he plans to expand a two-year-old pregnancy prevention program for grades 5 through 9 that features talks by teenage parents and an innovative technique of having participants care for computerized dolls that must be fed, changed and picked up. Another program provides middle-school students with tutoring and homework help before allowing them to play video games or sports at the clubs.

To expand those programs and offer more academically rigorous activities, Gunn said he needs to hire more-experienced staff members, from accountants to teachers. "I want to go from teacher's aides to certified teachers," he said.

To do that, the nonprofit organization needs to improve finances strained by the 2003 acquisition of the Metropolitan Police Boys & Girls Club, which was near financial collapse. Gunn has set a goal of raising annual spending by $4 million over the next two years, to $17 million. For the first time, the Boys & Girls Club is creating a long-term strategic plan that Gunn hopes will draw in more donations from federal, state and local government as well as from the corporate world. A fundraising staff that was "operating on a shoestring" will be beefed up, he said.

Gunn, whose annual base salary is $250,000, had never run a nonprofit group before, "at least for pay," he said with a laugh.

He entered the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1980 and, serving as counsel and a trial lawyer, became a colonel in 2002. The following year he was appointed chief defense counsel for the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions, overseeing defense lawyers for terrorism suspects awaiting military trials at Guantanamo. Gunn was less outspoken than some of his lawyers but publicly expressed concern that detainees could be excluded from trials and have no right to appeal.

Gunn said he left the military because a deep Christian faith drew him to nonprofit work. "I'm thoroughly convinced this is where I'm supposed to be."

The Washington Boys & Girls Club is the largest affiliate in the national Boys & Girls Clubs of America, with a full- and part-time staff of 236 people. The group operates 21 clubs in the region and a camp in Southern Maryland. In 2003, the most recent year for which information is available, 55 percent of the children served by the clubs were economically disadvantaged and 53 percent were from single-parent homes.

The Washington chapter dates to 1886, when the Newsboys and Children's Aid Society took root in Northwest Washington. That group grew, changed its name and broadened its scope. In 1981, what had become the Boys Club of Washington added "Girls" to its name to reflect the admission of girls almost a decade earlier.

Clubs in the region come in many shapes and sizes, from those in public schools to others in public housing, churches and standalone spaces. Some buildings are in poor shape; others are new. The Eastern branch near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the oldest facility, was built in the 1930s and is in constant need of repair.

Fairfax County is a target for growth, with the opening of six clubs planned for 2006. A club was started recently at an elementary school in Herndon, and the county's other club is in the Culmore area of Baileys Crossroads, "right next to a housing development many consider the headquarters" for the gang MS-13, Gunn said. The campaign to attract members in Fairfax might seem odd to some who think of it as an affluent suburb. But, Gunn said, "there are a lot of at-risk kids exposed to poverty."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company