PATERSON, NJ – Victor Cruz returned to his old stomping grounds in Paterson Thursday evening to attend the unveiling of the new and improved Aquatic Center at The Boys and Girls Club, which is now christened after the former New York Giants wide receiver and Super Bowl champion turned philanthropist.

“It’s not often that an organization gets to honor an individual who has had the level of impact that Victor Cruz has had on kids’ lives and their future,” said Barbara Collins, president of the board of directors of the Boys and Girls Club of Paterson and Passaic. “Victor has never waivered in his belief in the power that the club has to positively impact children’s lives.”

Cruz, 32, who frequented the 21st Avenue facility as a child while growing up in the city, donated $500,000 from the Victor Cruz Foundation towards a $4 million capital campaign – which also included donations from several other foundations and government funds that Cruz connected the facility to – in order to provide much-needed facelifts to the otherwise nondescript Paterson and Passaic Boys and Girls Club clubhouses. 

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According to its website, the mission of the Victor Cruz Foundation is “to promote positive change in the lives of youth today through innovative educational programs.” The end goal of the project – four years in the making – was to create a more vibrant learning and playing environment for the 1,100 children served per day during the school year, with another 800 per day during the summertime. The result is what Boys and Girls Club of Paterson CEO Wendy McGuire agreed is now a place that children can call their second home. 

“This design has gone above and beyond,” said McGuire of the finished product. “It makes it a place where people go ‘ahhhh.’ This is a place that cares about kids.”

Renovations to the Aquatic Center included new bleachers and tiles, HVAC upgrades, new lighting and a luminous paint job. The center is certainly an asset for its users, which include the adult and children swim teams. Three of the team’s past members are currently in college on Aquatic Scholarships, McGuire said. The facility is also a place Cruz learned to swim and play basketball as a child. 

Standing in a room inside the facility before the unveiling, Cruz delivered a heartfelt speech about his love for his native hometown. Members of the audience included his former a group of local high school football players, club officials, Congressman Bill Pascrell, Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, and Paterson Mayor André Sayegh, among other dignitaries.

“This is incredible to be honest,” said Cruz, who was dressed in a light, flowery yellow shirt. “You only dream about coming to the Boys and Girls Club in a place that I grew up. Coming in and out of, running in and out of, as Peter [Thornton, principal officer] can probably tell you. But just loving the people here. Loving the energy and the things that I’ve learned here. And then fast-forwarding and being able to give back and being able to come back here and recognize things that were dated. I’m going to wrap my arms around the Boys and Girls Club and fix these things that I know that the kids would enjoy.”

Standing beside Cruz at the podium were members of the Boys and Girls Swim Team, The Dolphins, who donned their uniforms and a bevy of medals as they looked on intently and happily as Cruz continued his speech.  

“That’s the biggest thing for me, is having the kids enjoy things that I didn’t have the resources,” he mused. “To giving them the resources like the swim team. And I like ya’ll some champions,” he said as he playfully motioned to members of the team. “To have the opportunity to come back to my hometown, it was definitely on purpose to start here. I could have started this program at a different boys and girls club in LA or somewhere flashier, but my hometown is special to me. And it’s special to my family. It’s special to everything that I do. And seeing you guys’ faces, seeing the people that basically watched me grow up here in this room, supporting me, it’s just the beginning. I think the Aquatic Center and all the changes that were made here is just the beginning. It’s about giving these kids more and more and more so that they’re out there and they have the outreach earlier in life. Certain things that they learn or have access to, they probably won’t have until they’re young teenagers or not until college. So to have a pool, to have an Aquatics Center, to have a technology room to have a dance room, to have these different things that I never had coming here is just a beautiful thing. I’m excited not only for today, but to continue doing more and more things with The Boys and Girls Club, and making it bigger and better and allowing Paterson to be highlighted within all of that.”

Other areas of the 50-year-old building, which McGuire said had previously “lacked aesthetic appeal,” also underwent a makeover. These included a new STEM classroom, a computer lab (funds for which were made possible by Sony, a corporate sponsor), a new kitchen where the chef can serve up hot meals, a remodeled gym, and a revamped dance studio, which is now floored with hardwood in place of concrete to yield what the club’s director of development Laura Beilskie calls “a feel-good studio that is more functional.”

“It’s really about making sure that our kids are getting as much exposure to as many things as they can,” said Beilskie. “In this community, we recognize that that doesn’t always happen. So we’d like to do that.” 

Eddie Cuba, a Paterson resident and club member, said he’s seen the impact the changes have already had on the children. For him, Cruz’s contributions to the club have made chasing his dreams “way easier.”

“Here’s a person that instead of abandoning us, his fellow Patersonians, he decided to share his success with us,” said Cuba. “I’ve seen the impact his changes have caused in them. I’ve seen their smiles. I’ve seen how it takes a village to help us to be there for us to see our needs,” he mused. “Sometimes, us as youths, we feel unheard. We feel lost, and with Victor’s help, we were able to find our direction in the path that we want to choose. It wasn’t just Victor lending his name so we can have his name in the club. It was him actually being involved with us. We’re a family. And we as a family, we do this together.” 

Cruz visits the Boys and Girls Club about four times a year, according to Bielskie. Whether attending the health fair, annual toy drive or grabbing a video game controller to play with the kids, his commitment to quality programming at the facility is unwavering.

In a letter McGuire read on behalf of Fran Sanchez, vice president of sports partnerships for the Boys and Girls Club of America, Sanchez called the naming of the center on Cruz’s behalf a symbol of his love and “promise to give back to the club and the community.” He added his support of kids’ educational and physical needs is “changing and saving the lives of kids all across America.” 

After a five-second count-down Cruz pulled the black cloth from the new signage which now reads “Victor Cruz Aquatic Center” with an illustration of a football player above the wording. 

Cruz stood before it and paused with his hands in the air to the sounds of applause.

“He is an amazing guy,” said McGuire. “Absolutely a hometown hero.

 

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