When Gary Harshbarger, Jr., was a young boy playing at the Van Buren Boys and Girls Club, he never imagined he would one day work for a company that would step up to help that same facility where he spent so much time hanging out with his friends.
But that’s exactly what happened when Bekaert of Van Buren, the same Bekaert where Harshbarger has worked for 25 years and is now a senior supervisor, unveiled its donation of a $25,000 piece of playground equipment at the boys and girls club on Wednesday.
“It’s really cool that you grew up here, you came here as a kid and now you work here in the community and the place you work for is now giving back to the same boys club you came to when you were younger,” Harshbarger said while watching kids swarm the new playground centerpiece that was unveiled Wednesday at the club.
The playground equipment sits on part of the old ball field Harshbarger and his buddies used to play on during their younger days.
“When I came here this was right field of Hank Hayes Field,” he said. “I played many a baseball game here and now right field is this new big play area. That’s pretty neat.”
Harshbarger, whose three boys all play sports at the boys and girls club, isn’t the only Bekaert employee who grew up at the club.
“Both my parents worked, so this is where I came after school,” said Operations Manager Randy McClaren. “I played athletics through here and grew up playing in this very gym my entire life. Now I get to help out and Bekaert gets to help these kids do the same thing.”
McClaren is also on the club’s board of directors.
“I see the kids here quite often, I know what they go through and I hear the stories,” he said. “I know that the people that work here really support these kids and really give them that extra that they need. They help them with their homework, they help them with their athletics and with their art … they help the kids in everything they want to do. They really care about them and support them. For us to be able to come out here and give them something extra that they can come out and play on really means a lot to me and to all of us at Bekaert as a whole.”
McClaren said many Bekaert employees have children who spend their afternoons at the club, the same way he did as a youngster.
“A lot of the parents of these kids work there,” he said. “It’s the same way my parents were. They have to have somewhere for their kids to go, someplace they can trust to leave them and this is that place.”
Those kids now have more things to do at the club thanks to the Bekaert’s contribution. The company donated $25,000 for the play equipment as well as another $5,000 for landscaping around the area. Other companies chipped in and, when it was all said and done, the final product included a new fence, a fresh coat of colorful paint and steps for the gaga ball pit as well as landscape timbers and pea gravel.
“This means so much,” said Will Knapple, who is the director of operations for the boys and girls club. “It really gives our kids an opportunity to come out and get their healthy lifestyles on in a fun way. They really enjoy being outside, getting away from the screen time and getting some fresh air.”
The idea of a break from screen time wasn’t lost on McClaren’s 8-year-old son Trey, who said, “This is awesome. It’s gonna keep a lot of kids off their phones.”
Knapple, when hearing that sentiment, said with a grin, “It’s important for our kids to learn technology but it’s also important for them to be out here and just be kids.”
Dawn Winford, the unit director for the Van Buren Boys and Girls Club, said the donation is “such a blessing,” adding, “Without Bekaert there is no way this would be possible. To watch it come from just dreaming about it to becoming a reality … it means everything. It just would not have been possible without Bekaert at all.”
Bekaert officials seemed just as excited to have donated the equipment as the kids were to be the recipients.
“Bekaert has a long heritage here, more than 45 years in Van Buren with our plant, so to be able to give back a little bit is important,” said Jason Jones, the company’s sales director for North America. “Social responsibility is an important item for Bekaert globally, but to give back here in our backyard is especially nice.”
He added, “Some of our own colleagues actually grew up here at the Boys and Girls Club and a lot of our colleagues have children here today as well. So it’s really special for us to come together and be able to give back to the community of Van Buren that’s given so much to Bekaert.”
Bekaert General Manager Melissa Turner said, “We hope that some of these kids are our future employees and that they remember this.”
If history repeats itself it’s a good bet that will happen.