Tweet When I walked into Foundation, The Rolling Stones’ 1971 album “Sticky Fingers” was playing in the background. Peter and Alex Cohen, brothers and owners of the shop, lounged on chairs as they chatted with two customers who were flipping through their newest shipment. “We started to sell records on Instagram to fund the other stuff […]
My friend Gary Cain, 63, is president and CEO of one of the nation’s largest and most respected Boys & Girls Clubs organizations, serving more than 15,000 Central Florida children every year. He is inspirational, speaking often about the Panama City club that transformed his life from one of poverty and hopelessness as a child to one of success as a man. Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida recently opened the Hughes branch downtown. The largest club in the region, it’s already at capacity serving 350 children a day. We met in the conference room at the headquarters where the glass walls are etched with the values that drive both Gary and the clubs: Be Positive. Be Smart. Be Great.
Tell me about your Jeep Wrangler.
I still drive my 2008 Honda Accord with 180,000 miles on it. We use the Wrangler on the weekends. My wife Louise and I occasionally go to a wildlife management area and take pictures of birds and such.
Are you and your wife bird watchers?
I enjoy taking pictures. I enjoyed photography as a kid. They had a little photography club at the Boys & Girls Club in Panama City, and now with the grandkids, I take pictures. They rock my world. I don’t look at my phone as a camera, but my wife takes a billion shots with her phone. It’s one of those things I aspire to get better with as I have more time in my life. It helps clear my head, kind of like when I run. Time in my life is always a challenge!
How often do you run?
About three days a week. I’ve always enjoyed being outside. I’ve done five marathons, but now I’m trying to save my knees! What I do now I see as casual running.
How many grandkids do you have?
We have four. They are all here. We enjoy living here.
How do you describe the clubs?
We’re a loving, healing organization. You can be homeless or this or that, but when you come in our doors, you are going to be welcome. We’re happy to see you. We’re going to do our best for you. For children who have a lot of challenges, they respond very well to that. If you come from an environment where there are a lot of stressors, and you come to a place where people seem interested in you, and they are happy to see you, it’s like candy to a sugar addict.
What do you recall about your first encounter at a Boys & Girls Club?
I can still to this day remember [in 1966] my first director saying, “Gary Cain, I’m glad you’re here.” At that point in my life, there was a lot of conflict.
You’ve been a mold breaker for a long time. What are the keys to that?
I’m driven by a couple things. I was given a gift years ago, being part of the Boys & Girls Club. When I joined, my sister was pregnant at 14, and I had a brother in prison. The wheels were coming off. I was given the gift of someone who believed in me and loved me and a place that I would be accepted. The club was very transformative. You can never really give back enough. We have to be here to give our best, and that club experience is really where the rubber meets the road.
I don’t know about breaking the mold, but I am driven to always try to make things better. Our son is a banker and a great father; our daughter is an attorney. Bankers and lawyers don’t come from where I come from. To me, breaking that mold is the most important one. We’re talking about changing generations through the clubs.
How different is Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida today versus when you arrived in 1994?
We’ve built the organization into a flagship organization. We’re now seven counties and 36 clubs, and we had to build a system that was different than what was here. It’s a lot of little steps to move forward, and sometimes we get big breakthroughs.
What advice do you impart to kids at the clubs?
There is a huge amount of kids in the pipeline that are not getting the normal, natural things that parents should teach — reading, how to shake hands, how you conduct yourself. We are in the “create success” business. It’s about meeting a need even if it’s teaching kids to read. It irks me that kids in inner cities aren’t a higher priority.
What do you wish Central Florida would do more of?
Kids come from all over the world to Central Florida to have this happy experience. It’s an iconic place to come to. Shouldn’t we try to make this community the dream place to grow up? I often ask people, “Can you imagine what would happen to these kids if they didn’t have a Boys & Girls Club to come to?” All people need to be loved, feel safe, be taught values, understand the importance of education.