On a recent day, beneath a warm sun on the western fringe of the Twin Cities, Pa Chia Thao was surrounded by her past, and her future.
This was at Voyageur Environmental Center, owned by the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities, and among tall trees that framed the shoreline of a picturesque lake, kids were doing what kids do at summer camps.
Canoeing. Fishing. Playing.
The scene was in marked contrast to the inner-city neighborhoods where most of the campers — many of them kids of color — live the other 51 weeks a year.
Thao herself is from such a neighborhood.
Born in Thailand, she grew up in public housing in St. Paul. As a kid, she was shy, she said, and joined the neighborhood Mount Airy Boys and Girls Club at age 7, looking for friends and help with her homework.
“My family was very traditional Hmong in its expectations of girls,’’ she said. “For me, the Boys and Girls Club was an escape to be the person I am.’’
The person Thao is, she would learn — thanks, she says, to the Boys and Girls Club’s leadership and other skills programs — is achievement-oriented.
A graduate of Mounds Park Academy, a private Twin Cities high school, Thao will be a second-semester freshman this fall at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
She attended Mounds Park on a scholarship, and also earned a scholarship to Mount Holyoke.
Now a counselor at Voyageur, Thao watched the other day as a few score giddy kids assembled in advance of their much anticipated noon lunch.
Some talked about the sunfish they had just caught, others about the bows they would shoot at the camp’s archery range, still others about the overnight camping trip they had taken.
Not many years ago, Thao was also a Voyageur kid.
“Here, kids can immerse themselves in nature, and forget any troubles they have,’’ she said.
With eight metro locations, Twin Cities Boys and Girls Clubs provide safe places kids can go after school and during summer vacations. Membership is nominal, $5 a year. But if a kid can’t pay, that’s OK. It’ll be worked out.
This isn’t a baby-sitting organization. The point, Boys and Girls Clubs leaders say, is to give kids the skills they need to do well in school, interact with other people, and make healthy behavioral choices.
Kids ages 5 to 19 are welcome, and about 12,000 Minneapolis and St. Paul area youngsters belong to the clubs, with a peak membership age of about 13.