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Counter tackles challenges as director of Boys & Girls Club

Date: 11/18/2008

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

HOLYOKE John Counter, the new executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke, not only has the responsibility of running one of the busiest organizations in the city, but also must lead the effort to develop a use for former Mount Tom ski property.

Counter has been leading the club for the past three months and succeeded the late Bruce Thompson, who was the director of the club for 27 years.

Counter was no stranger to the club. The Holyoke native said, "I was a Boys & Girls Club kid."

He also served on the board of the club since 2001 and was its vice chair.

Counter had worked at the Holyoke Housing Authority for 21 years and said he was "at a crossroad over his career" when the board offered him the position at the club. He added what made the offer even more important to him was the fact that Thompson had urged other members of the board to ask Counter to take on the job.

The club's annual audit showed that Thompson left it financially sound and Counter said that is important as 10,000 young people use the club annually. Every day the club is the site for an after-school program for 150 children and in the evening from 6 to 10 p.m. the drop-in activities for teens are offered.

"This place is thumping every night," Counter said.

The club has satellite programs in four Holyoke Housing Authority complexes and is a partner with the city on anti-gang, anti-violence programs funded by the state's Shannon Grant.

Currently the club is working with Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe on developing an anti-truancy program.

The education programs offered by the club are important especially in the summer to prevent learning loss, he said. Studies have shown that low and moderate-income youth who do not participate in learning activities during the summer can drop a grade or two in knowledge.

"There's a big need for services," he said. "There's a big need for funding."

The club purchased the Mount Tom Ski area in 2004. Bordered by property controlled by the state Department of Recreation and Conservation, the non-profit Trustees of the Reservation, a quarry operation and the former Mountain Park amusement park, the ski area has a lot of potential to be some place inner city children can learn about nature.

Counter said that 95 percent of all the plants and animals native to New England could be found on the Mount Tom Range.

"It's a ecological phenomena," he said.

He envisions collaboration between the club and the Five College community in developing uses for the property and will seek a planning grant to formally begin the planning process.

Besides its use for nature and science education programs, Counter said he has been thinking of the site being used as a location for a summer concert series.

He said the club's board has begun taking the necessary steps to start the planning process.

The club does have some time to make its plans, as it cannot develop the area until the quarry operation ceases. Mount Tom Rock has until either Sept. 2, 2012 or until it reaches the two million ton mark, which ever comes first. Based on how much gravel it has ground out of the mountain, Counter believes the quarry will be in business until 2012.

Once the quarry business closes, the question facing the club and the state will be what to do with the quarry location.

"We have ideas [for the use]. We have to start planning," he said. "There's a lot of opportunity there."