<b>COMPETITIVE COMPASSION:</b> Michael Baker ​— ​a native of upstate New York yet an in-your-face Red Sox fan ​— ​has already won over skeptics of the troubled Westside club, which serves many thousands of kids every year.
Paul Wellman

It might be premature to declare Michael Baker the Second Coming of Sliced Bread, but in the four short months since he’s taken the helm of the troubled United Boys & Girls Club of Santa Barbara, Baker has been making a strong impression.

Most immediately struck has been city Parks and Recreation director Nancy Rapp, who finally agreed to extend City Hall’s $1-a-year lease with the Westside Boys & Girls Club. That lease — which ran for 50 years — expired last August. Because of longstanding concerns about club leadership, staff turnover, safety, and financial stability, Rapp had insisted on a short contract. The Boys & Girls Club board initially wanted a 20-year extension, but ultimately accepted a three-year deal that was signed last week and will be ratified by the Santa Barbara City Council next Tuesday.

“I’m in a wait-and-see mode, but I’m also very encouraged,” said Rapp. “Michael Baker has impressed a lot of people; he’s got ideas, energy and he’s making good decisions. It seems he’s here to stay.” The same could not be said, however, of Baker’s predecessors — either for the whole United Boys & Girls Club organization or the Westside center in particular — who’ve come and gone with such rapidity over the past two years that even Rapp couldn’t name them all. And her office was meeting on a monthly basis with the Westside club staff since 2013.

Baker — a native of upstate New York yet an in-your-face Red Sox fan — arrived in Santa Barbara after 27 years with various the Boys & Girls clubs, the last 14 in Anaheim. There, he made news by reaching out to homeless kids living in motels, enlisting celebrity chefs for feed-the-kid campaigns, and trucking in youths from rival gang territories. Brash, fast-talking, and energetically positive, Baker immediately opened the Westside Club, located by Bohnett Park, on Saturdays. That hadn’t been done in 19 years. He also extended Friday hours until 10 p.m. to make it more accessible to kids and teens in the neighborhood.

In addition, Baker instructed his staff to go out in search for new underserved kids and drive them to and from the Westside club. “We had three vans we were using once a day,” he said. “That’s a waste of resources for the other 23 hours,” Baker said. Now, Baker said, the Westside club is serving homeless kids, families in Section 8 housing, and people from the lower Westside, for whom the Carrillo Street barrier has traditionally proved insurmountable.

Baker also teamed up with the Santa Barbara School District, whose mobile cafes now deliver warm meals to 200 people a night — Monday through Friday — by Bohnett Park. Of those, Baker said, 120 are under 18, who are fed for free, no questions asked, no papers to fill out. For adults, it’s $4. Putting this program together is Nancy Weiss, food service czar for the school district. Baker refers to Weiss as “my hero.” Weiss says the same about Baker.

One of the perennial concerns hovering over the Westside club has been the association in Santa Barbara’s popular imagination between Bohnett Park and Westside gang members. Attendant doubts about safety have been a keen issue with principals of nearby schools, La Cumbre Junior High School principal Jo Ann Caines especially. As a result, neither La Cumbre nor Harding Elementary have been sending their students to the Westside club for after school activities or tutorial services. As Caines explained, she knew her students would be safe once inside the club. But she worried about the fights they might get into, the drugs they might buy, or the sexual harassment they might experience immediately outside it.

Baker made a point to visit Caines in her office. He was the first Boys and Girls Club executive to do so. The encounter, Baker acknowledged, started out bumpy. It got less so as he acknowledged past problems. It got better still as he outlined his approach. Afterwards, Caines — well known for her formidable, no-nonsense persona — was all but smitten. “If anyone can save that place, it’s Michael Baker,” she said. “He brings experience. He brings actions, not just words.” More to the point, Caines is now referring her students to the Westside Club. That’s huge.

Baker’s approach to troublesome activities taking place in Bohnett Park is not to call the cops — or face off with neighborhood gangs — but to program the space more expansively. If gang members are playing handball at the park’s basketball court, Baker’s response is to schedule more Boys & Girls Club basketball games there. But with adult supervision. “Those guys don’t want to be around kids,” Baker said. As Baker sees it, he and the gangs are in direct competition for the same kids. “They’re all about instilling a sense of belonging, usefulness, and competence. We’re about all the same things though in a positive way,” he said.

To add further assurances, the new lease requires the Westside club to provide office space so city cops can hold office hours, take complaints, process paperwork, and be generally available to the neighbors. A similar program has been in effect nearly two years at the Franklin Center on the Eastside, reportedly to good effect.

The United Boys & Girls Club has been dogged by chronic financial woes in recent years. In part, that’s a function of the Recession. There’s also been a sea change in how major philanthropic donors give money. As the big foundations grew more enamored of investing in programs promising “structural change,” they grew less generous when it came to sustaining ongoing operations for bread-and-butter organizations like the United Boys & Girls Club — safe but not sexy — that provide basic services.

Given the acute lack of recreational options on the Westside, the need for a Boys & Girls Club in that neighborhood has always been immense. Funding, however, has been anything but. The financial challenge grew so great in recent years that a former United Boys & Girls Club executive suggested that City Hall take the Westside facility over.

Clearly, a big part of Baker’s job will be that of rainmaker and fundraiser. This weekend, he got a serious taste of what that entails, presiding over a big ticket gala in which 58 donors paid $750 apiece to drive vintage cars — think 1955 Porsches — in a 200-mile treasure hunt that wound up at the steps of Pat Nesbitt’s Carpinteria estate and polo grounds, where another 200 people paid $250 a plate to rub shoulders for a worthy cause.

In the meantime, said Baker, there’s still a ton of people he needs to meet and much work to be done. “We’ve got a long way to go,” he said, “It’s only been four months.”


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