How to Get Your Teens Engaged in Programming

BGCA’s Tiffany Thornton is BACK on the ClubX Blog to share what she’s heard from Clubs around the Movement about how they are keeping their teens engaged these days. Want to talk to her or another of our teen experts? Check the link at the end of this post!

The good ol’ days of offering pizza and sitting back while watching teens flock into the Teen Center are long gone. Today’s COVID guidelines, Club closures, loss of staff, among other challenges contribute to the many obstacles Clubs face in connecting and serving teens. And that’s not even mentioning competing with teen’s diverse priorities that include the demands of school, jobs, family responsibilities plus the latest release of Madden 21!

But there is good news, all of these challenges present a unique opportunity for Club staff to come together to share current and common practices to reach and engage teens both virtually and in person right now. In this blog you will hear from Club staff across this country who have found a way to serve and retain teens in a meaningful way and dare I say, even recruit a few new teens in the process.

Recruitment and Retention

We know that Clubs are all in different phases of their teen recruitment and retention strategies, and it can be hard to create one-size-fits-all resources. However, we’ve seen some principles and ideas that work across the Movement. We’ve compiled some of them in Serving Teens Effectively. Here are some other ideas from two Teen Directors:

Dontravious Simmons, from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Albany, GA uses the game of Uno in peer to peer outreaches with incentives to recruit new teen members. Middle school aged youth are asked to “Draw 2” new members to the Club while high school aged teens are asked to “Draw 4” new members to the Club. Each member that draws 2 or 4 new members gets their name entered to win incentives and prizes chosen specifically by the members. Folding teen voice into your incentives plan ensures the reward is enticing and will encourage wide spread engagement. 

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Jeff Goncalves, 2020 National Keystone Advisor of the Year, shares that having the right staff working with the teen population is the start of creating a safe, trusting, and supportive environment. With the right staff and culture in place, teens will begin to feel more comfortable within the Club and will encourage their friends to attend. He shares that with teens interests and attention in a constant state of change, staff should be flexible and comfortable in changing programs and schedules. “While structured activities and programs are what we strive for, adjusting plans on the fly adds an extra element of spontaneity and excitement.

Get Connected, Stay Connected

It has been long proven that staff are the number one reason teens stay connected to their Club. We also know the one predictive factor in helping to offset the stress and challenges teens face is connecting them to at least one supportive and caring adult. With a simple phone call, text, or Club van drive by, Clubs can work to maintain their contact with teens and provide them with those connections in safe and brave spaces. Some resources to help staff connect with teens are conversation starters , pulse checks and emotional check ins. Here’s an example from the Youth Center at Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia:

Teen Director Maria Beaulieu looked for ways to calm the fears of the unknown the teens were feeling during the start of the pandemic. Maria started out by writing letters by hand to 120 teens in the Youth Center and mailing them to their homes. Maria let the teens know that staff were thinking of them and that they were missed in the Teen Center. The teens responded and all worked with their staff to find ways to connect over various virtual platforms until they were able to safely return to the Center. The teens even created their daily schedule of activities so that they felt a sense of ownership during their interaction.

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Fun! Fun! FUN!

Years of research shows that as teens face increased demands on their time and attention, they desperately need moments to just relax and do the simple things they enjoy. So while the closings and limitations on Teen Centers restrict some of the typical Teen Center experiences, Clubs can still work to provide opportunities that are strategically aligned to “Just for Fun.” One very popular trend is Esports. This platform has allowed Club members to safely interact with other Clubs in other regions in online gaming and even host local tournaments to engage nonmember teens who in return, become a member of the Boys & Girls Club. Another trend is the wildly popular video sharing platform TikTok. David Gordon from the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Capital Area in New York led the effort to update their Teen Center to reflect their teen’s love of making videos:

“We updated our space to include a TikTok studio. The studio gives teens a dedicated space in the Club to perform TikToks that they would otherwise record at home. This way the Club provides an element they cannot get anywhere else as it is equipped with a logo banner, ring light and the priceless social aspect. Staff and teens also painted a section of our space to mimic TikTok logo colors.”

Check out this local news video spotlighting the work David is doing with the Lyricism 101 program!

Teen Voice and Passion Driven Programs

Giving teens a voice is the most important step Clubs can take to recruit and retain teens. Partnering with teens by listening to the things they are passionate about and then supporting them in elevating their voices delivers meaningful impact and a level of engagement that is hard to replicate. Teens are more than willing to share the things they want to see, hear, and do and giving them both the space and support to do so amplifies their voice and levels-up your teen program. Check out what the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City, Missouri, has done to elevate teen voice:

Staff from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City created opportunities for teens to express how they feel about critical topics in their community alongside staff also allowing themselves to be open and honest back with their teens. Keystoners led discussions with their peers and community partners focused on recent social unrest stemming from the death of George Floyd and the protests that were held across the nation. Keystoners found it important to gather, albeit socially distant, to give their peers a platform to share their thoughts and think of ways to enact change in their communities. This gave teens an opportunity to lead the discussion in the direction they wanted.

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Getting Job and College Ready

Access to jobs as well as tools and resources to help teens graduate from high school with a plan for the future remains a key staple and draw for teen participation. As many classrooms continue hybrid or virtual learning, teen-serving staff play a key role in filling in the gaps and keeping teens on track and engaged in college and job readiness programs. Plus, in many cases these resources and opportunities provide access to teens’ first job experiences. Ron Green, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Tar River Region, says the Junior Staff Program is an amazing opportunity to prepare our teens to be job ready and meet some real needs:

“The program gives teens an opportunity to learn the job and soft skills that will prepare them to be workforce ready.  At the same time the program gives us an opportunity to put a few dollars in their pockets as well.  Along comes COVID-19 and the Jr. Staff program becomes a life raft for many of our families.  With many of our parents suffering job loss during the pandemic, that left many of our teens as a revenue source for the household.  What started off as pocket money turned into light and grocery bill money for many of our families.  The Club is like family, and family sticks together during tough times.

Want to learn more about serving teens during the continued COVID pandemic? Check out 7 Things to Consider About Teens and Virtual Club.

Want to chat with BGCA staff regarding your teen program? Schedule time to have a teen consultation customized to your Club needs.

What are your Teen Center best practices? How do you raise teen voice through your programming strategies? We want to learn from you! Comment below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email

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