“I like people. I enjoy getting to meet different people, learning about them,” says Josh Kraft ’85. “When you do community work, you get to interact with a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds. No matter what level you’re working at, it’s about the people.”
That genuine interest in people has been the driving force behind Kraft’s twenty-plus-year career with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston. Beginning in 1990, when he ran an outreach program for thirty at-risk middle schoolers in South Boston, through today as president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston serving more than 14,000 children, Josh Kraft has always been committed to people.
“In the end what we really provide the kids with at the Boys and Girls Clubs is a consistent caring adult who meets them and greets them every day. It’s through that relationship with that adult that they begin to develop a sense of safety, a sense of confidence,” says Kraft. “We give them a sense that there is something for them, there are opportunities and hope, and they have to grab them.”
For many years, Kraft was that caring adult. After graduating from Williams College, he did a brief stint teaching and coaching at a local private school, before joining the staff of the South Boston Boys and Girls Club. He spent the next few years working on a daily basis with youngsters from the South Boston public housing developments who were having problems academically and socially.
After taking time off to earn a master’s degree in education and social policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Kraft took on a new challenge. With a group of volunteers, he founded the Boys and Girls Club in Chelsea in 1993.
“The city was in receivership at the time,” comments Kraft. “We started out in the basement of public housing, with about 75 kids, then moved to a new school building, then to the old high school where we worked out of their locker rooms.
“I look back at my time in Chelsea, growing the club there – most people get their MBAs in two years – but that was my MBA, my corporate training, my masters in public health and public administration. Those fifteen years, I wouldn’t trade it. Beyond my family, it was probably the best experience in my life.”
He kept expanding the program, fundraising and building community support, until 2002 when they moved into the $11.2 million state-of-the-art Gerald and Darlene Jordan Club, which now serves more than 1,000 children annually. He continued there as founding executive director until he was appointed the Nicholas President and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston in 2008.
Again Kraft faced many challenges as the economy faltered and non-profits saw their base of support shrink.
“We are so lucky. We have unbelievable volunteers. Our board, our overseers, these people really get it,” he comments. “With the advice of our board, we made some budget cuts that got us through the year. There was a strategic plan in place that we had to put on hold. But we’re doing great now, with a healthy endowment. Most of our funding – 80 percent of our $21 million budget – comes from corporations, individuals, and foundations.”
Kraft had already made many connections with the Boston community while he was with the Chelsea club and has continued to build on that base. In turn he serves as trustee or overseer of a number of local nonprofits, including The Rivers School, Beaver Country Day School, the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation, the Museum of Science, and Lasell College. Kraft is also the president of the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation where he oversees numerous initiatives.
“Here at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston, we feel that part of our job is to partner with as many other nonprofits as possible. We feel if we don’t do that, we’re not doing our job,” says Kraft. “By partnering we’re giving access and opportunity to every kid that comes through our door. There might be something we’re not that proficient at, so we partner with everyone from the Museum of Fine Arts to MetroLacrosse to the Children’s Room that works with grieving youth and families. We have 180 partners of all kinds and they’re really essential to our being able to reach our mission.”
That’s not to say the 11 clubs located throughout the Boston area don’t offer a full range of programs on site. Youngsters arrive after school and some stay as late as 8:30 at night with a healthy meal served each afternoon. The professional staff offers specific programs: from college club, to tutoring, to reading club, to basketball leagues, ceramics, everything and anything that covers the six core initiatives the clubs focus on: arts; sports; leadership; life skills; sports, fitness, and recreation; and technology.
In his administrative role as president and CEO, does Kraft miss the daily connection with the kids?
“I worked in Chelsea for 15 years and saw a whole generation of kids come through there. My door was always open so I could be talking with you right now and kids would be sitting at the conference table, waiting for me,” comments Kraft. “I had a kid from Chelsea who came by the other day – we have an alumni program and he was getting involved in that – and he said if it hadn’t been for the Boys and Girls Club, he never would have set foot on a college campus. It’s nice to hear those things.
“But I still get to enjoy that aspect – of being out in the community,” he continues. “Again it’s about the people, always being open not just to the kids, but to other people in the community.”
He credits Rivers with helping him appreciate the importance of relationships.
“I always really treasured my time at Rivers. For me it was a great place. I had a great group of friends and the teachers were terrific: Mr. Jarzavek, Dr. Wasson, Mr. Suby. In the end it goes back to what I was saying about community work, it’s all about relationships. Those are the things that have lasted with me, from my friends that I made there to the teachers I got to connect with.
“It’s great having my nieces at Rivers and seeing the school through their eyes,” he adds. “Jessica graduated in 2012, Ali is a junior, and Sadie is a freshman.”
Josh Kraft will be honored with the 2014 Alumni Excellence Award on Alumni Day, May 17, in recognition of his long-standing commitment to public service.
“It’s an honor to get this award from Rivers not just because the place means so much to me but also because it comes in Tom Olverson’s final year,” he concludes.
It is indeed a timely honor for Kraft. In talking about his own guiding principles, Tom Olverson has often said, “It’s all about the kids.” Josh Kraft has certainly shared that passion and dedicated his heart and soul – and career – to “the kids.”