Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta Provides Safety, Ignites Great Futures

By Katy Barksdale, Trustee, Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta | President, The Rockdale Foundation

“When the truth was out there about my sexuality, I never searched for acceptance. That was until I was told by the ones I love ‘we don’t condone that.’ Hearing this shattered me.  The only place I could be my full authentic self was at the Boys & Girls Club, the one place where I get support and advice from people who care.”

Terrence LP, Douglas County Boys & Girls Club

On Nov. 11, 2022, at Coca Cola Roxy Theater, I sat in awe of 16-year-old Terrence as he so bravely shared his story of adversity and inclusivity. Terrence was one of 20 dynamic teens who represented Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta (BGCMA) at our annual Youth of the Year (YOY) Gala & Celebration—a culminating event for the yearlong character and leadership program for teenage BGCMA members who demonstrate academic achievement, leadership skills, and community service. 

Though the world may often feel quite daunting today, with leaders like BGCMA’s Youth of the Year participants at the helm, our tomorrow is quite promising. Year over year, I leave the YOY gala & celebration inspired by their lives and hopeful for our great futures. What strikes me most about their stories is this common thread: inclusion.

Terrence’s testimony is a reminder of how invaluable supportive adults are in the lives of our young people, who need us now more than ever. Mental health concerns among high school to college-aged students have more than tripled in the last year, and more than 2.5 million youth have severe major depression, according to Mental Health America findings released in 2022.  In addition, a 2022 national survey from The Trevor Project found that 45% of LGBTQIA+ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.  While that is an alarming number, the survey also found LGBTQIA+ youth “who felt high social support from their family reported attempting suicide at less than half the rate of those who felt low or moderate social support.” How we show up for our youth matters.

Growing up in what was then a small town, Conyers, Ga., inclusion during my youth meant racial inclusion. Integration of schools was happening, and our Black and White communities worked hard to build bridges. Although not perfect, we were successful at making a peaceful transition, which many other communities were not able to achieve. In addition to racial inclusion, my parents and many others were working hard for inclusion for the special needs population in public education. My brother, who was born with Down Syndrome, was able to attend public schools, even though at birth, my parents were told to institutionalize him and that he wouldn’t live past age 7. He lived to be 61 and led a happy, productive personal and professional life. 

Then, when I headed to college, inclusion became more about gender. Women were more and more being encouraged to forge new paths in areas where they previously not allowed. Gender inclusion was a huge topic in 1990, when we merged the Girls Clubs of Atlanta with the Boys Clubs of Atlanta. As I remember it, the girls had great programs and the boys had more money and better facilities. As chair of the newly merged Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta, I recall many discussions about how to make the facilities and programming inclusive.

Given the challenges we know kids are experiencing today, BGCMA has a renewed commitment to inclusion. In fact, BGCMA revamped its mission in 2020 to include the words “safe, inclusive, and engaging.” BGCMA is also quite intentional about its approach to social-emotional development, with an organizational-wide strategy that aims to develop the youth holistically: mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, and spiritually. To support this effort, staff are offered trauma-informed training to help them better identify trauma and arm them with knowledge and resources to provide care to our youth; and safe space training to bolster best practices in fostering inclusive environments for both staff and youth members, focusing specifically on the LGBTQIA+ community.

BGCMA understands that creating inclusive spaces for kids & teens is a social justice issue. In high-need communities across Metro Atlanta, BGCMA provides access to safe places, connecting members with caring adult mentors, supporting healthy social-emotional development, and offering research-informed programs outside of school and during the summer months. In a world in which kids are on the receiving end of adult-centered political decisions, we must continue to hold space for inclusion. Adults must rise above the politics and ensure that we are providing loving and inclusive environments for our kids to thrive. There’s no room for debate. Our kids need safe spaces.

Today I am proud to have volunteered over 35 years to ensure young people have a safe, inclusive, and engaging environment to go to after school and during their school breaks. I still think about a cab driver who told me decades ago, “Boys & Girls Club saved my life. It was Mr. John, who was inside the front door who knew my name and made me feel a part of something.” What mattered back then to our members is what matters today—human connection and feeling included, someone noticing you and recognizing your needs: a safe space.

About Katy Barksdale: Katy Barksdale is President of The Rockdale Foundation, a family foundation with a grant making emphasis in education, ethical leadership, and community. In addition to her international work in Sierra Leone with local education leaders, Barksdale serves on the Board of Trustees for Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta (BGCMA) and on the Boards of the John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Charitable Foundation, and Soaring Heights. She is a member of the International Education Funders Group and the Rotary Club of Atlanta. Barksdale previously worked for two US Senators, practiced law, and chaired the Atlanta Board of Education. A lifelong supporter of storytelling and film, she has produced social justice documentaries, including John Lewis: Good Trouble, Sing, Freetown, and The Big Payback. She is proudest of her three adult children who are doing interesting things all over the world.

About Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta (BGCMA): For more than 80 years, Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta (BGCMA) has ignited the unlimited potential of kids and teens by creating safe, inclusive, and engaging environments. Our 25 Clubs located in 10 counties across metropolitan Atlanta have traditionally served nearly 7,000 kids & teens (ages 6-18) each year, offering youth development programs during critical non-school hours that promote academic success, healthy lifestyles, and character & leadership. BGCMA also oversees Camp Kiwanis, a 160-acre outdoor residence camp. To learn more about BGCMA, follow us on social media: Twitter (@BGCMA_Clubs), Facebook (BGCMA), TikTok (BGCMAtl), LinkedIn (Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta), and Instagram (bgcmATL), or visit us online at

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1 Comment

  1. Katie, you have such a beautiful soul and lift up so many with your drive, intelligence and integrity. Love this article. Thank you for the many positive differences you make in this old world.

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