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Grand reopening of ‘landmark’ Salesian Boys and Girls Club

November 19, 2015 Valerie Schmalz

Friendships that last a lifetime. A home away from home. A lifeline for a single mother. Kept me on the straight and narrow. 

Whether 18 or 80, those gathered for the Nov. 6 ribbon cutting of the $11 million renovation of the Salesian Boys and Girls Club at Sts. Peter and Paul Church exuded a spirit of joy and happiness that was almost palpable. The event was a celebration of a great achievement – starting with $5 million in bequests when planning for the renovation began five years ago; the club raised all of the $11 million final construction cost and has money in the bank to pay operating costs for several years going forward.

“I’ve been a member since I was about 4 or 5 years old. I am 60 years old,” said Dave Mana at the North Beach grand reopening. “There are so many great things about the club. The fact it kept us on the straight and narrow is one thing.”

“It’s been like a second home to me,” said Christian Mata, 21, one of the many teenagers and young adults volunteering at the event. “This is my childhood right here.”

“It’s a good place to come. I’m still friends with the same friends from third grade,” said Mata’s Sts. Peter and Paul classmate Gino Ragusa, 20, who said the club pays 20 percent of his tuition at the University of San Francisco. “I just give back. I coach and do all that stuff.” 

The club is “an environment that is safe. My mom was a single mom. To raise four of us, the boys club and the girls club was like a lifeline to us,” said Cathy Busalacchi who travels decades later from Santa Cruz for the club cioppino dinners with her friends.

Membership was $2 when Mana joined. Today, the year-round club charges $10 for a year’s membership for children ages 8-18. Founded in 1918 by Salesian Father Oreste Trincheri as a boys’ club in response to juvenile delinquency among the Italian boys in North Beach, the club was incorporated with a board of directors in 1952. In 1994, the boys and girls clubs were merged.

Before the ribbon cutting, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone blessed the building, calling the club “a real landmark here in San Francisco.” Thanks to the Salesians, “the spirit and gift that is John Bosco is alive and flourishing,” he said.

As a young priest St. John Bosco foresaw the unsettling influence that the industrial revolution was having on youth. He inaugurated a society of priests, brothers and sisters to work with children of the poor and laboring classes in Italy. He chose as patron St. Francis de Sales, who was noted for having conquered a fiery temper to achieve a gentle character. That family name “Sales” gave title to the Salesians of St. John Bosco.

“Our primary mission is working with the underprivileged, but we are very diversified ethnically and socioeconomically,” said Russ Gumina, executive director, noting the club has many children from the public housing projects as well as from middle class and wealthy families. “I told the archbishop we are the best kept secret in San Francisco.” The archdiocese is leasing the land to the club for $1 a year for 70 years – which the club paid upfront.

“The club is a place where you learn; a place where you learn about God. It’s a place where you feel at home; where you’re accepted and where you’re known by name and it’s a place where you can have fun and meet friends,” said Salesian Father John Itzaina, pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul.

“We try to do things to keep the kids occupied and off the streets and still instill Christian values,” said Gumina, who is handing over the leadership to longtime assistant Randy DeMartini. Gumina started coming to the club when he was 6, and was hired in 1969 by former director Fred Scolari. Gumina will stay on as part-time development director.

The Salesian club is a drop-in club and has scheduled activities. It also serves as an after-school program for Sts. Peter and Paul School and staff and volunteers walk children from a number of local public schools after school. Others come on school buses.

The renovated building, located on the edge of the school yard and church parking lot, adds 7,500 square feet of space, and includes a martial arts dance studio, a culinary and arts and crafts room, a learning center, black box theater, conference room, new gym, and game room. The building was gutted and built from the inside out, said Gumina, “The only thing left is the walls.”

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