For many members of the Jelleff branch of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington, Bob Stowers has been coach, counselor, teacher and friend. "I consider him like a big brother," said Mike Marino, 19, a member of the club for the past 12 years.
"If he hadn't been there while I was growing up, I would have been in trouble.
"He would always warn us of the problems of drugs and drinking and getting in trouble. Bob wouldn't tolerate it," Marino said. "Whenever we have a problem, he's usually the first one to know and the first to help."
Susanna Bernstein, a 14-year-old club member, agreed. Stowers, she said, "doesn't have much time for himself because he gives it up for the kids. I think that's great. Jelleff wouldn't be anything without Bob."
Stowers, 32, is the social and recreation director at the Jelleff club at 3265 S St. NW in Georgetown, a privately run center open to both children and adults from the metropolitan area. Jelleff has athletic, arts and crafts and other recreational facilities and a membership of 1,500, of whom 1,000 are children. Membership fees begin at $10.
Parents of Jelleff participants, especially, appreciate Stowers' rapport with his young members.
"He's one hell of a person," said Carolyn Thomas, whose four children have participated in Jelleff activities. Thomas said she admires Stowers' ability to take a personal interest in all the members of the club. "I'm thankful to Bob and the club for the way my kids have turned out," she said.
Jelleff has been part of Stowers' life for 26 years. He joined the club at the age of 6. He remembers playing baseball on a field where the Georgetown Safeway stands today. He still has the first paycheck he received in 1965 when he ran the club's canteen: $40 for two weeks' work.
Stowers graduated from the University of North Carolina with a math degree and came home to work at Jelleff. A native Washingtonian, he works at the club seven days a week during the summer. Often he's the first to arrive and the last to leave. During the school year, he runs a Saturday night roller-skating program.
When he isn't giving swimming lessons, painting or cutting the grass, he usually can be found talking to kids--the activity he enjoys most.
"A lot of kids talk to me about problems that they wouldn't talk to their parents about," he said. "I may not give the right answer but at least I'm here to listen."
Joyce Davidson, executive director of the Jelleff branch, agreed. "Quite a few kids have a rapport with him that's special. They can talk freely with him, but at the same time they don't lose respect for him."
Stowers puts extra effort into telling teen-agers about the problems of alcohol and drugs. "I don't try to scare the kids, because that never seems to work, but I do explain the dangers by giving them the facts," he said.
Though he has tried other jobs, including factory worker and restaurant manager, Stowers always came back to Jelleff. Yet he admits that his $11,000 a year salary doesn't allow him to attain some of his dreams, such as owning a house.
"In my case, there are more rewards than just money," he said. "I get up in the morning and look forward to coming here. Not everyone can say that."
Stowers says that he enjoys Jelleff so much he hesitates to use the word "job" to describe his work there. He even says he doesn't need a vacation because he considers the club a vacation of sorts (although he did take a day off in May to drive to North Carolina for his grandmother's 90th birthday).
"Normally people look out for money, but not Bob," said Fran Delgado, 22, who has been active in the club for 18 years and is now on its board of directors. "He's more out for the kids than himself," he said.
Many times Stowers will pay out of his own pocket for an outing a child could not afford, he said. "He'll tell the kid he must do something to earn the trip like getting an 'A' in school. He makes them do something, but not for his own benefit -- only the child's," Delgado said.
Stowers said he would like to be director of the club some day, although "that's a few years off. . . . I don't want to leave this club until it reaches its potential, and that's a long way off."
Stowers said the club should try to attract more members from Georgetown and otherwise improve its funding from the community. He said children from low-income families would not be affected because the club never denies membership because of lack of money.
"We don't want to turn any kid away, but we have to be realistic and try to get the local community to support us financially," he said. He also would like to see it become possible for lower-income people to join the Jelleff club or other branches. The Eastern Boys Club, at 261 17th St. SE, near RFK Stadium, is the only other branch in the city.
"We can't help everybody, but we can try," he said.
Remaining at the club for so long, he said, is a way of repaying Jelleff for its being a major part of his childhood. "It's also the belief that I can make a difference in the club and children's lives."
To the thousands of lives he's been a part of over the years, Stowers has made the difference. "I only hope I can end up like Bob," said Marino.
"My life revolves around the club," said Stowers. "Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't feel like it. As long as the club is helping children and I can help, I'll stay."