Nandua Graduates Step Up as Mentors at Boys & Girls Club

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Javon Smith, left, and Brock Custis, right, are dedicated to improving the lives of club members at the Boys & Girls Club.

Story and Photos by Bill Sterling –  

Brock Custis and Javon Smith, separated by a grade at Nandua High School and now 33 and 32, respectively, work in tandem to improve the lives of the youth attending the Boys & Girls Club each weekday afternoon at the Mary N. Smith Cultural Enrichment Center near Accomac. 

Custis makes sure the members are fed nutritious meals while Smith tends to their education and artistic interests. 

Custis, a former sous chef at Omni Resorts and head chef at three restaurants, including Taste in Richmond, runs a food program at the Boys & Girls Club that extends well beyond the club’s walls. 

“We’ve been granted the opportunity to feed not just the kids here at the Boys & Girls Club but kids in general. I feed kids in both counties but also provide snacks to the athletes at Arcadia and Nandua high schools,” said Custis, who was a four-year starter in football at Virginia State University and later played in the Arena Football League with the Richmond Revolution. “Everything is low sugar, but it definitely hits the food groups, and since we are always dealing with COVID, it is prepackaged,” said Custis, who has also taught culinary arts at the high school level and is the son of Kathy Custis, the longtime director of the Eastern Shore Boys & Girls Club. 

During the height of the pandemic when the club was not meeting because schools had virtual instruction, Custis, driving the recognizable Boys & Girls Club van, handed out food in neighborhoods where he knew youth were in need of nutritious snacks. “I still go in those areas in Northampton County and up here in Accomack because I know there are kids whose parents might not be around and are in need of food,” said Custis, who points out that none of what he does would be possible without the generous partnership of the Foodbank of the Eastern Shore. 

Smith Is the Consummate Volunteer 

While Custis is on the Boys & Girls Club staff and also in charge of the teen program in addition to conducting the food program, Smith is a volunteer who spends as many hours as possible at the club when not working as a senior accountant at the Ginsberg Nottingham and Mapp accounting firm about a mile away from where the club meets. Smith is also working toward a master’s degree and eventually his CPA. Like Custis, he is a graduate of Virginia State University. 

“I’ve been here every day since the club opened at Mary N. Smith in September. That will certainly change after the first of the year when we are busy preparing tax returns, but I want to give as much time as possible because I know how mentoring can encourage kids. At a young age, education became my outlet, and I’ve always wanted to become a mentor and spread the importance of higher education,” said Smith. “In the second grade I was placed in a Talented and Gifted Program (TAG), and by the time I got to the eighth grade I began to believe going to college was possible.” 

Smith has been a board member for the Eastern Shore Boys & Girls Club for four years, but when the club could no longer meet at Occohannock Elementary School due to COVID-19 issues and found a home at the Mary N. Smith Cultural Enrichment Center, he became much more involved. 

“I was long an advocate for the Boys & Girls Club expanding in Accomack County, and I hope we can get back in Northampton County at some point,” said Smith, “but here I know many of the kids personally and know their parents too. My first objective was to work with Kathy just to get the kids into the doors.” 

Smith has formed a chess club at the Boys & Girls Club because he believes the game helps critical thinking and is fun at the same time. He is working with the Eastern Shore Scholastic Chess Club, which offers an interactive digital curriculum. Smith says the chess club now has 11 youth with most being 9 or 10 years old. 

“I see kids here with potential and I want to share with them resources that will help grow their education,” added Smith. “Also, I think it helps the kids to see adults like Brock and me who grew up here and earned an education that opened up doors to having a successful career. We have friends who also got an education and are helping their communities, but most of them move on somewhere else because it is not always ideal to come back to the Shore. Hopefully, we can relate to them and show them that education is key.” 

Boys & Girls Club Provides Safe Place for Youth To Learn and Have Fun 

The Boys & Girls Club now has almost 50 youth attending each weekday after school at Mary N. Smith, which is near capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions. The youth, from 5 to 18 years of age, attend Kids Cafe, where Custis provides a nutritious meal. During the summer and when school is not in session, the Boys & Girls Club provides breakfast, lunch, and snacks. There’s also Power Hour, where club members work on homework assignments with tutors, and Triple Play, which includes physical activity and sports. There’s also a fine arts program which emphasizes arts and crafts, painting, dancing and other artistic pursuits. 

Brock Custis and fellow staff member Derrick Bell stand beside the Boys & Girls Club van and food that will be delivered to neighborhoods on the Eastern Shore.

The Mary N. Smith facility sat mostly vacant and neglected for years after its closing until 2011, when the Accomack County School Board donated the building to the newly established Mary N. Smith Alumni Association, with graduates ranging from the years 1935 to 1970, the last year the building was used as a high school. 

The alumni’s mission was to maintain the legacy of the late Mary N. Smith by continuing to award scholarships and to convert the building to a cultural enrichment and educational community center for use by all citizens of Accomack County. 

Its biggest challenge was to restore the integrity of the building, badly in need of repairs and renovation after years of neglect. 

However, a $40,000 grant from the Eastern Shore Community Foundation and annual funding from United Way of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, in addition to monies raised by the alumni association, have improved the building to the point it is used by various organizations in addition to hosting fundraisers, scholarship banquets, wedding receptions, dances, and many other events. 

Perdue Inc., a close neighbor, also made a major gift to the Boys & Girls Club to help its transition to the Smith facility by improving the building to meet certain standards for club use. 

Both Custis and Smith agree the now renovated facility is the ideal location to host the club, with its full kitchen, gymnasium and multiple classrooms that are suitable for all sorts for activities. However, Smith said another important aspect of his involvement is fundraising. “I have been out in the community asking for business donations. “We need financial assistance to keep the club operating so we can continue to be mentors to these kids.”

The Eastern Shore Boys & Girls Club has been unable to hold the annual Swine & Wine event, its major fundraiser, for the past two years due to COVID-19 issues, and while many supporters have continued to provide funds, more is needed. 

Custis, Smith Want To Give Back to the Community 

Custis said he realizes he could make more money living elsewhere, but he came home three years ago to help his mother care for his father, whose health was failing, and now he sees the Boys & Girls Club as a way of providing a service to the community. “It’s my way of giving back,” said Custis. 

Smith said he feels a link to the new home of the Boys & Girls Club because he once was a student here when it was a middle school, and also because he is related to the school’s namesake, Mary N. Smith, who was a prominent African American educator on her native Eastern Shore from 1920 to her death in 1951. 

Smith points out, however, that he is not related to the well-known educator on the Smith side of his family, which was her married name, but through the Wrights, which was her mother’s maiden name. 

“The preservation of this school is so important for many reasons, and I am committed to working with the Mary N. Smith Alumni Association to see that this work can continue for years to come,” said Smith. 

Custis and Smith, though they work in different areas at the club, understand what they do goes hand-in-hand. “Kids can’t learn when they are hungry,” said Smith. And Custis adds, “With me, it’s not just about the food. I give homework assignments when I give out food and tell them I will pick them up the next time I am out handing out food.” 

Custis adds, “We also tell kids college might not be for everyone, but you need to have a plan and work toward it.” 

Smith said the needs are great — more board members for the club, more volunteers with skills that can be taught to club members, more financial assistance, more transportation to get the kids to the club. “We also need to get the word out to let the kids know we are here because once the COVID issues ease up, we can see up to 150 kids.” 

Smith and Custis both said the younger children at the Boys & Girls Club are learning important socialization skills because much of their first two years of schooling was conducted at home virtually. “They come in very shy and not sure how to act around other kids, but you can see them becoming more comfortable every day and better at communicating,” said Smith. 

“Each family that sends their kids to the club pays a $40 weekly fee plus a $10 transportation fee. But Custis points out there are scholarships available, and Smith says he has raised funds that are targeted for families who can’t afford the fees. 

“I don’t want any child unable to attend the club here for lack of money,” said Smith. 

To register or for more information, contact Boys & Girls Club director Kathy Custis at 757-709-3038 or email easternshore@bgcseva.org

To make a financial contribution to the club, send a check payable to the Boys & Girls Club of SEVA and mail to P.O. Box 101, Melfa, VA 23410.

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