Lakewood Ranch builder Pat Neal had heard the stories, especially from his former business partner in Neal Communities, Frank Buskirk.
Buskirk had told him how much the Boys Club of Manatee County meant to him growing up in Bradenton.
"Frank was part of that generation who grew up at the Boys Club," said Neal, the CEO and chairman of the board of Neal Communities. "A lot of Manatee County's leadership developed because of what they learned in the 1950s, the values, the principles, the eduction. It provided important benefits."
So Neal and his wife, Charlene, decided to make "an investment in kids" by donating $1 million to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County to build its new DeSoto Club. The club transitioned to allowing girls to join in 1992.
"The DeSoto Boys Club had gotten pretty tired," Pat Neal said.
The Neals' investment helps kickstart the "Invest in Kids" campaign, which has a goal of raising $7.5 million. Dawn Stanhope, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County, said the goal is to start construction in the next 12 months with the project taking 18 months from start to finish.
Plans include a new campus-style building at 34th Street and 53rd Avenue in Bradenton. The facility will include an 18,500-square-foot teen center, a learning center and a commercial kitchen. The Neals' gift will be used for a new sports/flex field.
"The donation made by Pat and Charlene has been so important to our transformation," Stanhope said. "We needed a solid base before going into the community to raise the additional dollars. Their donation not only signifies a belief in us, but it gives confidence to others. They are investing in kids, creating a positive impact."
The DeSoto Club currently serves 200 children daily with others on a long waiting list. Stanhope said the new facility will have the capability to serve triple the amount of children each day.
She said most of the children using the facility live within a five-mile radius, but she added it benefits the entire county because it provides a structured environment with many of the programs being designed to have learning components. That, she said, keeps kids off the streets and points them in a postive direction.
Buskirk, a former Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County foundation board member, said the club was important in his development.
"I joined the club in 1956," said Buskirk, who is 69. "Many of the boys in my peer group went there. It's what we did on Saturdays. In those days, it was just boys and it was a way of life. I gained a lot of self-confidence."
Buskirk said the men who ran the programs at the club were role models and he learned about responsibility. He took a summer job at the club washing uniforms and still remembers earning enough to buy himself a watch.
"Through my 47 years here in Manatee County, I know it has been an asset," Pat Neal said of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County. "I've learned that through my experience with the men I do business with. They reflect the values of the club."
The DeSoto Club has 120 staff members and about 30 paid positions.
"We always are looking for volunteers," Stanhope said.