BY LURAH LOWERY | BRISTOL HERALD COURIER
Editor’s note: This is the fifth story in a series about the United Way of Bristol, the agencies it funds and the people they help. The organization is in the midst of its annual fundraising campaign. For more information, go to www.unitedwaybristol.org or call 423-968-4912.
BRISTOL, Va. — He grew up in Rice Terrace with his six brothers and sisters, but you could almost always find him at the Boys Club in Bristol.
Bristol Virginia Chief of Police John Austin believes that he would be on a very different path in life if it hadn’t been for all the things he learned at the club, now called the Boys and Girls Club.
“You learn the social skills you need, you learn how to interact with people, you learn sports. They had all different aspects of just life in general,” he said. “It was a safe environment. It was a positive place to be. It had a lot of people who had a whole lot of influence on me.”
When Austin was old enough, he began working for the club, which showed him that he enjoyed working with children. After graduating from high school and attending college, he returned to Bristol and immediately started working again at the club as the athletic director while also working as a police officer at the Bristol Virginia Police Department. He took the position as chief of police earlier this year.
“I can’t stress enough what a role the Boys Club played in my life,” he said. “I could have just as easily been in jail. I could have just as easily been dead; went the wrong way, but when that Boys Club was open, I was in it.”
The Boys and Girls Club is one of the agencies that helps a number of people across the region each year through funding from the United Way of Bristol, which is currently in the midst of its annual fundraising campaign.
He said that on Saturdays as soon as he woke up he would run down to the club, which was close to his home, and if the doors were locked he would wake up the director and have him open.
“There’s a population that could benefit from being in the Boys and Girls Club,” he said. “It was a place to call home. Compared to where I had come from, it was a step up. It was a stepping stone.”
Between the four area locations, 250 to 300 children are served each day Monday through Friday, said Dick Collins, Boys and Girls Club director. During the school year, children are provided a meal or snack and are given both in the summer, he said.
“What we do with the kids is to try to provide a good, safe environment where they can have some fun and excitement,” Collins said. “We concentrate on core program areas that we design our programs around: character and leadership development, education and career development, health and life skills, the arts, and sports, fitness and recreation.”
Donations to United Way of Bristol that benefit the Boys and Girls Club are very important and keep the doors open, Austin said.
“The Boys and Girls Club and many other organizations, especially today, would not survive if it were not for the funding they get from United Way or private donors that give,” he said. “We can all sacrifice something and give a little bit somewhere. Whether it’s a lot or not, we can give something. Even the $2 or $3 donations are still an impact when it comes to raising money. There are a lot of people that have succeeded because they’re a product of one of these organizations that has been funded by United Way.”
Austin regularly visits children at the club and encourages them to take advantage of the opportunities provided and tells them to never give up on their goals.
“If we can get people to be productive, responsible citizens for the city of Bristol and the community in whatever they’re doing throughout their lives; if we can get them to learn work ethic, to believe in the good Lord, and if we can get them to learn responsibility, I think they’d meet their goal,” he said. “It all takes place because of United Way and donations from people in the community wanting to give back and help others. So many kids depend on that Boys and Girls Club now. It’s such a good environment.”
Collins was a volunteer at the Boys Club when he was in college and that’s how he met Austin. The two have been good friends for years and Collins recently asked Austin to be on the club’s board of directors.
“He’s a great leader in the community and a great example of what the Boys and Girls Club can do for the youngsters in the area,” Collins said. “We appreciate the support of the entire community. We are able to take care of these kids because the community believes in our organization and what we can do to give these kids the best chance that we can so they grow up and are better community citizens and leaders.”