Dana Castellani, the new executive director for the Boys & Girls Club of Western Treasure Valley talks about her goals for the future last week in Ontario. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

ONTARIO – The memory still strikes Dana Castellani.

She had just traveled to Ontario from Red Bluff, Mont., to interview for the executive director position at the Boys & Girls Club of Western Treasure Valley in Ontario. 

When she arrived and stepped out of the car, she was hit by a solid wave of heat.

“And I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s hot,” said Castellani, contrasting the temperature to what she normally experiences in her native Montana.

She and her husband Ray raised their two children in Red Lodge, Montana, and that’s where Castellani sort of fell into a gig with the Boys & Girls Club of America in 2014.

“The Boys & Girls Club in Red Lodge was about to close,” said Castellani.

The club, she said, was in financial trouble, its ties to the community sapped. That is when a member of the Boys and Girls Club board of directors approached Castellani. 

“I had no idea what a Boys and Girls Club did,” said Castellani.

Castellani was asked to become a program coordinator at the facility in 2014.

 “My job was to clean it up and make it fun,” said Castellani.

Castellani said her job wasn’t easy but she made steady progress. She cut the facility’s debt from $400,000 to $22,000 and increased programs for middle school and teens.

A year and a half after she started, Castellani was asked by the board to become the permanent executive director.

She said she loved her job in Red Lodge but last summer she said she became “restless.”

“My youngest had just graduated,” she said.

About the same time Castellani heard about the Ontario job and decided to interview for the position formerly held by Matt Sorensen. Sorensen left Ontario to take a similar job with the Boys & Girls Club of America in Eugene.

Castellani began her job in Ontario on Sept. 3.

Castellani said the move from the Red Lodge facility to the Ontario position came with changes. 

“This is bigger, more staff,” said Castellani.

In Red Lodge, Castellani managed between 10 and 12 people. Now she oversees a paid staff of between 25 and 30 people.

Castellani also not only manages the Ontario club but a smaller facility in Payette.

Castellani believes her job is important.

“It requires a lot. You are kind of creating your own energy and I really think every kid really does deserve a safe place to be and we are kind of the out-of-school part of that,” said Castellani.

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A safe place for kids

Castellani said one of the club’s priorities is to create a safe place for children.

“There is structure, but a lighter structure. Safety is big. You hope they feel physically safe and feel welcome and can be themselves,” said Castellani. “We talk about trauma all the time now and I have become very sensitive to it, to what kids go through.”

Both the Payette and Ontario clubs have commercial kitchens that produce a hot meal for children when they arrive after school. Children get another snack later in the day. Children are also divided into groups when they arrive, said Castellani, with students in first through third and fourth through sixth grade on the main floor and teenagers in the basement. 

Children can play games inside and outside, supervised by the staff but there is also a concentration on helping students with schoolwork.

“Homework help is big,” said Castellani. 

Castellani said just “giving kids space and time” makes a big difference.

“We promote good character, leadership and a healthy lifestyle,” said Castellani.

Castellani said her staff supervises about 180 kids a day.

Castellani said one of the surprises when she arrived was how well her staff tackled the daily influx of children.

“We serve three to four times the number of kids at the Ontario clubhouse compared to Red Lodge. But it is so smooth. I expected a lot more, a lot more chaos and it is smoother than Red Lodge. The staff just handles it,” said Castellani. 

Building and training her staff is important, said Castellani.

“It is not just about developing kids but developing staff. I’d like to think our staff has the potential to grow also,” said Castellani.

The cost per year for a child to go to the club is $10, said Castellani.

“Fees make up two percent of the budget,” said Castellani.

The rest of the non-profit organization’s money comes from either grants or donations, said Castellani.

Castellani said funding remains a challenge.

“I try to get that message across, that Boys & Girls Club of America does not fund us. People are always surprised by it. As a nonprofit, we are always asking for money but it is real and legit,” said Castellani.

Castellani said she is motivated “to make a positive difference.”

Her short-term goals are modest.

“For me, just kind of stabilize. Transition at my level can be really hard on an organization. It is weird coming in as a boss and asking everyone else to train you at your job,” said Castellani.

Castellani said she also wants to build up the programs geared toward teenagers at the Treasure Valley and Payette club houses.

Castellani said so far, she likes Ontario.

“In all four directions, there is something to offer. I would like to spend more time getting out and into the area,” said Castellani.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at pat@malheurenterpirse.com or 541-473-3377.

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