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Leaving a legacy, Boys and Girls Club's executive director retiring

Leonore Potter has worked as the executive director of the Boys and Girls Club since 2003. Potter will retire in March. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

In the morning, the Boys and Girls Club of the Bemidji Area is a colorful, yet quiet space.

Bright paintings hang on the walls of empty rooms. Pool tables sit silently waiting for someone to play them. Books go unread.

A few employees shuffle about, but the hallways soon become quiet again.

All of this changes after school lets out. That's when kids start to filter in.

Slowly, the noise grows as more children arrive. Rooms are filled with laughter and smiling faces trot through the once empty hallways.

This is the scene that Leonore Potter got to witness every afternoon as the executive director of the Boys and Girls Club.

It's something she helped build from the ground up. It's an organization that she cares about deeply.

Now, it is time for Potter to move on.

Potter is retiring March 30, leaving behind a lasting legacy with a club that has benefitted thousands of children.

The idea of bringing the Boys and Girls Club to Bemidji first started in 2002. Potter was approached about a consulting position to survey the community about the needs for the youth, and how to find the best way to meet those needs. The consulting position was funded by the Northwest Minnesota Foundation.

Potter spent the next year interviewing 40 youth development professionals about youth needs in the community.

The common theme she heard was that Bemidji didn't have a community center. There was no place for children to be enriched, a place where children could feel competent, useful and have a sense of belonging.

After reviewing the results of her survey, a board of directors decided Bemidji needed a community center for children, and the Boys and Girls Club model was chosen. This model was ideal because it was accessible to everybody in the community ages 6-18.

Memberships cost $15 per year, and no more than $45 per family. Children can come as often as they wish and participate in any of the programs offered.

"Very early on, business leaders, the city, the county and non-profit organizers were very receptive of the idea," Potter said. "We didn't have to sell it to the community."

The Boys and Girls Club opened in November 2003 in the former Seventh Day Adventist School. In the spring of 2005, they moved into the current facility located on Minnesota Avenue.

When the board of directors of the Boys and Girls Club was looking to fill the position of executive director, no one fit the bill better than Potter. She has been there ever since.

Her main duties include public relations and marketing, financial oversight and development.

Ted Will is a retired doctor and was part of the board of directors that hired Potter.

"She's a very outstanding personality and an upbeat person," Will said. "I think we were very fortunate to find such a skilled person to run the club during its formative years."

Chair of the Boys and Girls Club Board of Directors Scott Turn said that Potter's efforts to bring the club to the community were incredible. She not only helped get the club started, but has since kept it operating with great success.

"When you think about the Boys and Girls Club, you think about Lenore," Turn said. "They're interchangeable. She really got the club off the ground, which is an enormous feat itself."

Potter feels very fortunate to have been a part of a grassroots movement like the Boys and Girls Club. It's one of the many rewarding parts of the job.

"The beauty of it is no one person or even one group could have made this a reality or kept it going," Potter said. "It is surely a shining example of community collaboration."

The Boys and Girls Club receives support throughout the Bemidji community, with much of the club's funding and pro bono work coming from area businesses. Other support comes from the non-profit sector, Beltrami County, the City of Bemidji, School District 31 and Bemidji State University.

"So many gifts have come our way," Potter said. "Whatever people have to give, they seem willing to give it."

In 2011, a total of 255 people volunteered 4,812 hours of their time to help the Boys and Girls Club of the Bemidji Area.

Former Bemidji City Councilor Onen Markeson volunteers his time at the Boys and Girls Club. He typically helps kids with homework in the library. Markeson said that Potter's role in the club is immeasurable.

"She's been a leader and very instrumental in developing the club," Markeson said.

Potter grew up in Chicago and has many relatives spread out across the country. When Potter retires, she plans to spend time with those relatives. She even has a son living in Sweden and might make the journey overseas to visit him.

After that, she doesn't have any long-term plans. With that uncertainty coming over the horizon, Potter is excited to make the unknown known.

"It's been a lot of hard work, but nothing that's worthwhile comes easily," Potter said.

Before she leaves her coworkers will send her off in style. An open house retirement party will be held for Potter at the Boys and Girls Club from 3:30-6:30 p.m. March 29 with a short program at 5:15 p.m.