It has been described as a "hidden secret," tucked away on a side street off Georgetown's vibrant Wisconsin Avenue. Frank R. Jelleff Boys & Girls Club, a branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington, thrives as a miniature melting pot that some dreamed America would be, a model of an ideal society.
The Jelleff Club is "the most diverse club in the area," according to Director Bob Stowers. "I don't think anyone could argue that point."
Jelleff, which was founded in 1886, did not always accept racial minorities, or girls for that matter. The club was all white until 1963, as were all the branches of the then-Boys Club organization. Girls were not allowed to join the organization until the mid-1970s. Today, children and teenagers of both genders and from many backgrounds play together peacefully.
During the 1997-98 school year, the total membership at Jelleff was 7,603. That breaks down to a membership that is 67 percent white and 24 percent African American, with Hispanics and Asians making up the remaining 9 percent of members. Last summer, 65 percent of Jelleff's summer camp attendees were minority children. The club's members come mostly from the District and Montgomery County--many from affluent families, but there also are children whose families are on public assistance and many who fall somewhere in between.
"We have so many different types of kids here, not just race, but nationality and economic background," Stowers said.
Last year, Jelleff provided approximately $10,000 for 500 children who were not able to pay the annual $20 membership fee. "Georgetown has a reputation that it's for the ritzy. This place is not like that," said Norma Bryant, Jelleff's after-school director/camp director and a full-time teacher at Holy Trinity School.
It is rare to find a club with such a healthy racial balance in the Washington area. Seven of the eight inner-city Boys & Girls Club branches in the District have memberships that are nearly 100 percent black, said Bob Bowen, executive vice president of the Metropolitan Police Boys & Girls Clubs.
Stowers, who was a member of the club before it was integrated, said that many parents feel a diverse club is essential. And, he said, unlike some organizations that boast diversity, Jelleff was integrated easily.
"The kids of different backgrounds get along well here. It's not like a group of whites are together all the time or a group of black kids are together," Stowers said. "Many of our teams, if not most of our teams, are really a mixture of different kids. The activities we have here apply to everybody. Everybody likes to play basketball: rich, poor, white, black. That's been my impression."
Jelleff offers activities, including karate, soccer, basketball, arts and crafts, roller-skating and swimming. That variety draws many parents to the club.
"Both my wife and I wanted her to have a good balance," Carl Silverberg said of his 7-year-old daughter Blayne, who spent her first summer at Jelleff this year. "I wanted her to have a different experience than if she spent six weeks at St. Albans," said Silverberg, who is a political fund-raiser from the District.
"It was the diversity. We like the balance. It's good for her. We wanted her to understand that this is the real world."
Employees and parents at Jelleff say such an environment can only strengthen racial tolerance.
"A lot of parents come for the diversity," said Bryant, the club's after-school director, who became affiliated with the branch 10 years ago when she enrolled her daughter in the summer camp program. "The most important thing I like is that all children are welcome."
According to Stowers, the club director, "We have a lot of kids that come into the schools here, such as Hardy Middle School, right across the street, which has a large number of minority children. Those kids come over here after school."
And for some parents, the club's diversity is its main selling point. "In the summer, there are a couple of African American men, who are in college," using facilities at the club. "I think that's a good example for my boys," said a foster parent of two African American males.
The foster parent, a lawyer from Mount Pleasant who is white, is pleased that her two foster children are able to interact with an interracial staff. "They get exposed to both white and black [people] who are warm and loving. We're an interracial family, so that's important."
CAPTION: Alex Zeledon, 9, shoots pool with a friend at the Jelleff Boys & Girls Club. Alex's younger sister and brother also participate in club activities.
CAPTION: Issa Smith, 8, and Samory Henry, 11, work on a project with art teacher Ria Lopez, right, at the Frank R. Jelleff Boys & Girls Club of Washington.