Sometimes your life can change in a single moment. For Rubin Nieto, that moment happened when he joined his neighborhood’s Boys & Girls Club when he was 9 years old.
Nieto grew up in a government housing complex in Hammond that was riddled with drugs, gangs and violence. The Boys & Girls Club of Hammond had a unit in the complex to serve the kids in the neighborhood. “It was the place where Boys & Girls Club was needed the most,” he said.
His friend’s mom worked at that club, and his friend told Nieto about pool tables and games, which caught his interest. Once Nieto got there, he realized Boys & Girls Club was a lot more about the people than the toys.
“I was able to be around positive role models, people who were treating kids with respect and love. It was very different from what I got at home,” Nieto said. “I got love, but it was very tough love in very negative environment. My home life was centered around drugs and alcohol and gang members being shot at. Those were things I didn’t want to be around, and the Boys & Girls Club was a place I could go to be away from all that.”
Nieto spent most of his days at the Boys & Girls Club. He didn’t realize it as a child, but looking back, he knows that the time he spent at the club led him down a different path.
He’s not alone. Studies have found that kids who are involved in after-school activities — whether it be sports, performing arts, church or programs like the Boys & Girls Club — are more likely to have a high GPA, graduate high school, attend college and have a full-time job. They’re also less likely to smoke marijuana or abuse alcohol.
Nieto experienced that firsthand when he started playing pool and board games at the club. His life continued changing as he got interested in sports.
In the summer, the Chicago White Sox hosted a baseball clinic with the Club and he got a Sox hat and a baseball glove. He enjoyed baseball, but his favorite sport was basketball. He was thrilled to be on the Boys & Girls Club’s team.
“I was not a very good basketball player. There were 15 kids on our team and I was one of the worst,” Nieto said. “Coach Johnson would take us to our elementary school, which was across the road from the government housing, and we’d practice. It was all about teaching us responsibility, commitment, dedication, teamwork and work ethic. You don’t go to practice, you don’t get to play in the game.”
Nieto credits Coach Johnson with giving him the confidence to push himself. Johnson always made sure he got time on the court during games.
“Some of the kids, they’d put their heads down when I got off the bench. But Coach Johnson said, ‘No, Rubin’s got this, he’s gonna be great.’ He had this high-impact motivation that he brought into my life. I felt like I could do anything.”
The confidence Johnson instilled in him led Nieto to try out for the middle school basketball team. When he didn’t make the team, he turned to swimming and wrestling. He eventually graduated from high school and then college. He got a job as a corporate recruiter and thought he was successful because he was making a lot of money.
“Money was what defined success, but I was making good money and I was intrinsically not happy. I thought back to the times in my life where I felt supported and felt like someone was making a difference in my life. That was at Boys & Girls Club,” he said.
Nieto quit his job and took a job at a Boys & Girls Club. He was making less than half the salary he made in his previous job, but he was so much happier knowing he had the chance to make a difference in kids’ lives the way Coach Johnson made a difference in his life.
“It’s life-changing, the number of young people that we’ve been able to help shape and get through high school and get to college. That we help turn their lives around. You can’t put a price tag on helping out young people,” he said. “I want to be the person that kids will look back upon and say, ‘Because of Mr. Rubin, I want to do something positive in my life.'”
Now, Nieto is the director of the Boys & Girls Club of Elkhart. He’s leading the Elkhart clubs through the transition from the satellite locations at Beardsley and Osolo elementary schools and Northside Middle School into the new full service location being built at Beardsley Elementary.
“I thank the Boys & Girls Club for helping me become who I am today and for providing me a career where I’m satisfied more than I ever thought I could be,” Nieto said. “And I’m honored to be a steward to help this community of young people who are asking for Boys & Girls Clubs. Hopefully we can provide them with more.”