Lobdell: St. Harlan needs your tithings

If the Pope asked me to nominate just one candidate for sainthood from our community, my answer would be easy: Harlan Andersen.

If you don't know him, then you probably didn't grow up in the Newport-Mesa area — or have children.

For nearly 40 years, Harlan has worked at the various branches of the Boys & Girls Club of the Harbor Area, serving as the ultimate role model — kind, gentle, understanding, patient and funny — for thousands of kids each year.

I've watched Harlan humbly go about his job for 17 years now as my four sons played basketball at the Lou Yantorn Branch in Eastside Costa Mesa. Amid the din of controlled chaos that surrounds him each day, I've never seen Harlan — a big man with a graying buzz cut who played basketball at Chapman University well enough to be inducted into the college's Hall of Fame — lose his temper and snap at a kid.

Or a parent, for that matter.

In fact, the 60-year-old seems to delight in figuring out the more troubled children, and, in the past, he's taken flack from his superiors for not barring perpetual troublemakers from the club.

"Where else would they go?" Harlan asked Thursday when I talked with him at his small office inside the Eastside branch. "People need to remember we're talking about kids, little kids who are still developing. I always try to keep that in mind and be as positive as possible."

He said the club members haven't changed much over the years.

"They want to hang out with friends, they want to play games, and they want a place where they belong," Harlan said.

I went to the Boys & Girls Club to hear about an amazing event Harlan has dreamed up: an alumni reunion night on May 21. He's inviting the tens of thousands of men and women who had been members of the Boys & Girls Club at any of the Harbor Area branches. You can find out more on Facebook (Boys & Girls Club of the Harbor Area), where some great vintage photos of the club can be found.

The night will also serve as a fundraiser of sorts, with tickets costing $50. The four branches — Westside, Eastside, Eastbluff and Irvine, which collectively serve about 5,000 children each year with after-school and sports programs — operate on a shoestring budget of $1.2 million.

With funding from charities dwindling, the club has been forced to hit the children with more fees and put off non-essential spending. For instance, the rickety bleachers at the Eastside branch were taken and well-used from a USC gym in 1967.

"What are our needs?" asked Harlan, repeating my question with laugh. "We need to pay for the lights, the water, the staff …"

His voice trailed off.

Fundraising may be the only part of the job Harlan, who's married with two grown children, doesn't absolutely love, though he's spending an increasing amount of his time doing just that. But still, he never stays on the subject long, preferring to tell stories about the kids who've passed through.

Like the one time a special education child was playing in a basketball game that Harlan was refereeing. A two-shot free throw had been called, so Harlan advised the players lined up on either side of the key to "relax on the first one."

So the special ed kid promptly laid down on the court, feet crossed with his hands behind his head.

"The whole crowd started laughing," Harlan said. "And that's the way it should be — everyone having fun."

And then Harlan surprised me. He had remembered that my oldest son, Taylor, had played himself into such a frenzy during a basketball playoff game that he had trouble catching his breath and had to be taken out.

"That just wasn't right, and it's always stuck with me," Harlan said. "Kids are supposed to have fun here, and not get pressured by coaches, parents or others in the stand."

That's vintage Harlan. My kids had played in the club's basketball program, but so had thousands of other children over the years. Still, he remembered a single incident involving my boy from 15 years ago. I bet he could do that with many parents.

So here's my challenge to the parents and children who have fond memories of their experiences at the Boys & Girls Club, and with Harlan: Spread the word about the May 21 reunion. This is a great excuse to get into contact with old friends and get together for a night of food, drinks, memories and laughs.

Harlan wants to raise $35,000 that evening. But I'm thinking with such a huge alumni base out there — which has to be filled with doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs and other professionals — Harlan is underestimating the night's potential.

I will be there, along with my two grown sons. I hope you'll join us.

WILLIAM LOBDELL — a former editor of the Daily Pilot and Los Angeles Times journalist — is a Costa Mesa resident who runs a boutique public relations firm. His column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is williamlobdell@gmail.com.

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