How'd the Boys & Girls Club of Trenton turn itself around? Talk to the tall guy in the suit.
By Wendy Plump/For The Times
At exactly 3 p.m., the sound of laughing children floods the game room at the Boys & Girls Club of Trenton and a crush of kids comes into the class where David stands waiting to greet them. He is an anomaly among them — hugely tall, impeccably dressed, quietly smiling at their tumult.
But when they crowd around him — a little group just arriving from the Trenton Catholic Academy for their after-school basketball — Breidinger’s grin is as wide as their own. Which is only right, considering that Breidinger is part of the reason they still have a club to visit.
In May, the local Boys & Girls Club will celebrate its 75th anniversary of providing Trenton’s children with free or low-cost after-school care, sports, homework help and a safe haven to gather in. Breidinger will be the top honoree at that gala.
In part, that is because he’s the club’s longest-serving board member, with 15 years of service. But it’s really more than that. It is safe to say that without Breidinger, there might not be a club at all.
When Breidinger arrived on the board in the mid-1990s, the club’s leadership was holding weekly meetings just to figure out how to pay its bills. The power company was threatening to shut off its electricity. Membership was dwindling, with only a few hundred kids. The building needed an upgrade. There were no funds to recruit children or add new programs. And this was happening during an economic boom.
Breidinger, then newly installed as the head of Comcast Cable’s operations in Mercer County and a member of the Rotary Club, was part of a group of Rotarians looking for something in the city to throw its efforts behind.
“What we found was one organization coming to the top, and that was the Boys & Girls Club,” said Breidinger during an interview at the Club on Centre Street. “I remember thinking, yes, that’s the organization. Because if we didn’t affiliate with it at that time, they would have been out of business.
“So I got very involved, brought in some other Rotarians. We started supporting the fundraisers first off,” he explained. “The steak and burger dinner, for example, was a big event they did but it never really worked. Well, all of the sudden instead of having 20 people show up for this thing you’d have 220 Rotarians and their families. We started raising money so they could pay their bills.”
The rest is the kind of story uniquely welcome in this economic climate — a story of success for those Trenton residents who need it most.
The club’s membership of 5- to 18-year-olds has soared to 2,300 with 1,200 kids attending every day. The yearly budget is now $3.5 million. There are sports programs, tutoring, a library, science and music classes, career and college counseling, internships, and spelling bees for the kids and their adult mentors. The club is building a barber shop on location so kids learn a trade early, and a bicycle exchange in Ewing helps them earn extra money.
Most remarkable, the club’s children have a 99 percent high school graduation rate. This is in a city where nearly one out of two teenagers entering Trenton Central High does not leave with a diploma.
“When you see our graduation rate you say, Wow. We’re really doing something right,” said Breidinger. “This has always been a tough environment to grow up in; you’ve always had the issues of drugs and kids being on the street even before the gangs got here.
“The one thing I’ve learned on this board is that these kids just want a sense of belonging. Many of them come from households where they don’t feel they belong or a community where they don’t fit. But when they come here they feel for the first time maybe in their lives that they have someone who cares about them and wants them to do better and recognizes it when they do.”
The club first opened its doors here in 1937, fueled by the philanthropy of residents whose names were synonymous with successful business in Mercer County — F.E. Schluter, Joseph Roebling, C.E. Stokes and others. Then it was just for boys, and entirely free. After those early years the club limped along until the 1990s, when Breidinger showed up and began poring over fundraising opportunities and profit-loss statements and business plans.
The board hired executive director David Anderson just seven years ago. Anderson implemented many new initiatives, including a sliding scale that allows for parents who can afford it to contribute toward the club’s operations. Previous to that, the club had been free — and burdened with raising every penny on its own.
The club has proven programs and curriculums, Breidinger added, as a national nonprofit whose methods have been tested in America’s most besieged neighborhoods.
“That’s why this program is so important,” he said. “You get the kids as young as you can coming here after school and you help them all the way through high school, before they get on the streets.”
A native of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, Breidinger was the youngest of seven children and the only boy in his family to go to college. When asked about his commitment to local organizations Breidinger said that his own childhood contributed to an appreciation of what civic-minded individuals can accomplish.
“I didn’t know I was poor until I went to college and saw kids with cars and all these other things,” he said. “My father was a veteran, so we belonged to the VFW and I can remember going there for a program at Christmas. We’d watch cartoons all day and they’d have a party for us and then Santa would come. It was thrilling.
“Now that I look back I realize why I was there. I realize it was for kids without a lot of resources,” he added. “But someone was willing to look out for me. I experienced that myself.”
Breidinger was hired by Comcast right out of Kutztown University to head a local franchise in Maryland. When he moved to head up the Mercer County operations, he had already been named a vice president, by the age of 24. Now 54, Breidinger has been with the company for 32 years. When he joined, Comcast had 300,000 customers. Today, they have 23.5 million.
While he obviously won’t take credit for all that growth, Breidinger said his secret at Comcast and with the Boys & Girls Club is treating each endeavor as though it were his own private company. That sense of ownership and responsibility has made him a highly competent businessman.
Breidinger’s biggest goal for the coming year is to develop and enact a firm program for club kids who do not want to go on to college.
“We’ve had great success with the younger kids and with our teen program, but we also know there are kids who don’t go on to college. What do we do for them? How do you create an opportunity for these kids to learn a trade and learn technical skills, so that they can go out and be landscapers and plumbers and carpenters in this community?
That’s now the piece we’re looking at and that I’m most excited about,” said Breidinger. He added that people who volunteer their energies to community groups generally offer “time, talent or treasure.” The Boys & Girls Club of Trenton, he said, needs all three.
With an optimism that has clearly served him well, Breidinger said of the club, “When people hear about it and how much it helps these kids, they can’t help but want to do something for us.”