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Fairfield's Wakeman Opens Bridgeport Clubhouse

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Natalia Kembaren started summer camp just Monday morning. But she’s already gotten a lot of use out of her neighborhood’s new 23,000-square-foot youth center. The Bridgeport 12-year-old is one of the first members of the Smilow-Burroughs Clubhouse , the Southport-based Wakeman Boys and Girls Club’s leap into its neighboring city.

“I’ve already played in the game room, been active in the gym and outside, let out my creative side in the theater, and just hung out with my friends,” Natalia said at the ribbon-cutting Wednesday. “I am so thankful to everyone who helped make this clubhouse a reality for me and the other members.”

The Wakeman Boys and Girls Club has been established in Southport for 98 years. But over the last decade, Executive Director David Blagys has extended the club’s reach to include a second clubhouse on Stratfield Road and a satellite program at McKinley Elementary School. This week he tapped into an entirely different neighborhood—Bridgeport’s Black Rock.

Blagys hopes to serve the 2,500 kids who now live within walking distance of the club. Of those, the majority are living below the poverty line in single-parent homes. The clubhouse’s chief benefactor, Southport’s Joel Smilow , said Thursday that though he’s long been a supporter of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, he waited until Wakeman tapped into Bridgeport to make his $1.5 million donation.

“I said to [Blagys], ‘You just tell me when you’re going to do something important in Bridgeport, and I’ll be there,’ ” Smilow said.

The new clubhouse sits behind the Burroughs Community Center on Fairfield Avenue. It includes a gymnasium, a teen center, a game room, two learning centers, a community room, a cafeteria and kitchen. It also boasts a technology room with 24 brand-new computers donated by NBA star LeBron James. James bought the desktops as a thank-you to the state’s Boys and Girls Clubs after his “Decision” announcement in Greenwich’s clubhouse last summer.

Blagys’ team will use those facilities to offer the same programs to Bridgeport’s kids that Wakeman already brings to Fairfield. Along with after-school homework help, the club will help older members find work and get into colleges. The gym will host youth sports leagues open to the whole city. But most of all, as Natalia said, the clubhouse will give kids a safe place to “just hang out.”

“The most important work is yet to be done,” Smilow said. “The parents have to make sure that their kids are here in so many numbers that David Blagys has to worry about fire codes.”

What do you think of Wakeman’s new clubhouse in Bridgeport? Give us your impressions in the comments below.

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