East Salem kids have a place to go after school as Boys & Girls Club opens new branch

Four years ago, as she was seeking a new location to build a clubhouse serving kids in northeast Salem, Sue Bloom got a phone call.

Builder and philanthropist Gary Epping told the Salem Boys & Girls Club CEO that his family wanted to donate the homestead he grew up on — a 2.7 acre property across the street from Chemeketa Community College — to the nonprofit to be their new branch.

“You could have knocked us over with a feather,” Bloom said.

On Wednesday, members of the Epping family joined several hundred Salem-area educators, civic leaders, politicians and Boys & Girls Club employees for a first look at the new clubhouse at 3805 Lancaster Drive N.E., slated to open on Monday.

“There’s a lot of great memories here,” Epping said at the ceremony, mentioning watching the moon landing in what’s now the club gym. “But the best memories are, we were loved. And we were cared for. And we were nurtured. And we were allowed to become the best person we could be.”

That’s what he and club leaders hope the new facility will bring to the neighborhood.

A central room features a tree made from real wood as decoration at the new Epping Homestead Branch of the Salem Boys & Girls Club on Wednesday, Sept. 28 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

When the clubhouse opens Monday, about 75 kids from surrounding schools will get to play on the new gym floor, eat meals prepared in the kitchen, take advantage of the computer lab to do their homework and play games as they get to know club staff.

The club can serve up to 200 members, branch director Stacy Sepubu said, and she’s been working to get the word out to local schools. The club currently has 12 employees, half of whom are bilingual in Spanish and English, and is hiring several more part-time positions.

The Salem branch of the national nonprofit operates six other clubhouses in Salem which give kids a place to go after school to get help with homework, food and a space to play and learn.

Families pay a small fee — teen membership is $5 per year, and elementary school membership $25 – but the club is intended to be accessible to low-income families and provide an affordable option for childcare.

Bloom said the new location is situated in a neighborhood that badly needs more options for kids after school. About 3,700 kids live within a one-mile radius of the Epping Homestead Branch, as the facility is called. Ninety-five percent of them live below the federal poverty line, she said.

As the Boys & Girls Club planned a new location, Bloom said they talked to principals of nearby schools. The Hayesville Elementary principal at the time described many children in the area as “window watchers,” who come home from school to their family’s apartments along busy arterials and sit inside, watching the world go by.

“There’s no safe place to run around and be a kid,” Bloom said of the surrounding neighborhood.

Sue Bloom, executive director of Salem’s Boys & Girls Club, tears up as members of the Epping family speak at the opening of the Epping Homestead Branch of the Salem Boys & Girls Club on Wednesday, Sept. 28 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

As site work was just getting started on the clubhouse, Bloom recalled sitting near the back of the property with Epping when two kids from a nearby apartment opened the window and began peppering her with questions. When would the clubhouse open? When could they bring their friends and play?

“Those kids are coming here Monday,” she said, drawing cheers from the audience at the ribbon cutting.

The clubhouse was built as part of a $16 million capital campaign for the Boys & Girls Club. The building, completed on time and on budget, had a $9 million price tag which included the value of the donated land, Bloom said. 

The remainder of the campaign will cover the operating costs for the new branch for five years, and help shore up the nonprofit’s budget for keeping its other clubs operating.

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office is stationing deputies assigned to the east Salem service area to work out of the clubhouse, Sheriff Joe Kast said. Though deputies will also respond to calls in the surrounding area, he said the intent is to build long-term relationships to develop trust with kids, improving community relationships over time.

“My hope is we can spend a lot of time there and just play with the kids and do what they want to do,” he said.

Following speeches in the club’s gym, members of the Epping family raised a flag on the pole outside, then helped cut the ribbon at the back entrance.

The homestead belonged to Larry and Jeanette Epping, who came to the Salem area in the 1930s from North Dakota at the height of the Depression, son Randy Epping recounted at the ribbon cutting.

Sue Bloom, executive director of Salem’s Boys & Girls Club, celebrates with Gary Epping at the ribbon cutting for the Epping Homestead Branch of the Salem Boys & Girls Club on Wednesday, Sept. 28 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

“We lost the farm and took all of our possessions in a four-wheeled trailer to Mount Angel, Oregon,” he recalled. They moved to the Lancaster property and built the family home in 1955.

His father eventually found success as a real estate developer, allowing him to give back through the family’s foundation, Randy Epping said.

“Despite ending up with the wherewithal to fund a big part of this project, they had their own hurdles and their own challenges just like the kids who are going to be coming here over the next few years,” Epping said.

The property still has concrete squares where Gary Epping and his siblings left hand and foot prints, out back by a basketball hoop.

“Gary shared that with me later that his dad told Gary, Shawn and the trustees to use the property for its highest and best use,” Bloom said at the ribbon cutting, speaking through tears. “We’re standing at highest and best use for our kids in our community.”

Gary Epping points to the concrete slab where his footprint at age 4 is immortalized outside the new Epping Homestead Branch of the Salem Boys & Girls Club on Wednesday, Sept. 28 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
The Epping Homestead Branch of the Salem Boys & Girls Club on Wednesday, Sept. 28 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter. Click I want to subscribe!

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.