Chris Watts, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania's new president & CEO, at the Estelle S. Campbell Boys & Girls Clubs building in Lawrenceville. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

When the Boys & Girls Clubs movement took root in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1800s, its advocates sought innovative ways to help young people come of age in a fast-moving world of disruptive social change.

That’s the same mission the organization faces today, according to its new President and CEO, 37-year-old Glenshaw resident Chris Watts, who took over in late November 2022.

“For over 130 years, Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania has met the challenges of preparing kids to have a great future,” he says. “Those specific challenges may change over time, but we’re still committed to help them reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens.”

Watts graduated in 2008 from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in civil engineering and earned an MBA from George Washington University in 2015. From 2010 to 2014, he served as a fellow in the Obama Administration directing corporate and community partnerships for the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition in support of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative

In 2015, Watts was named to the prestigious sports category of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 list of international movers and makers in recognition of his work with cause-centered sportswear company 4POINT4

He moved back to Pittsburgh in 2018 and spent four years with the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership coordinating programs in mobility and district development. 

With 12 Clubhouse locations, two stand-alone workforce development locations, three preschools and more than a dozen partner sites in Allegheny and Somerset counties, Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania is one of the largest and most comprehensive providers of before- and after-school programming in the region.

Like other youth service groups, Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania has expanded its mainstay sports and recreational activities to promote academic and financial literacy, STEM enrichment, conflict resolution and leadership training, career mentoring, workforce skills development, healthy lifestyle and nutrition counseling — transforming traditional Clubhouses into modern Learning Hubs.

Recently, Watts spoke with NEXTpittsburgh about why programs like Boys & Girls Clubs matter to adults and kids alike.

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Chris Watts, president & CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania, at the Estelle S. Campbell Boys & Girls Clubs building in Lawrenceville. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

NEXTpittsburgh: How did your engineering degree lead to a career in youth development?

Chris Watts: What I learned at CMU was that to solve big problems you have to have a cross-disciplinary approach and apply thoughtful strategic approaches. My civil engineering background showed me how to break down a problem into its core components, understand the stakeholders who need to be included in that process and work methodically toward a desirable outcome. 

I was also on the men’s soccer team and have always loved sports. 

My first job after graduation was designing roads for a national engineering firm, and I was spending 15 hours a day at a computer screen. I knew what I was doing was useful, but I also knew I wanted a career that was very personal to me and could utilize my interests and skills to solve bigger social problems. 

NEXTpittsburgh: Then you started your MBA at George Washington University …

Watts: My initial focus was on the social, economic and environmental impact sports has in a community. My first class studied the impact corporate social responsibility had on the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

NEXTpittsburgh: Did you go to South Africa?

Watts: Yes, and I met with FIFA leadership, sponsor executives and community members to understand how a big sports experience like this can have a positive impact. And, at the same time, how it might have a negative impact. That opened my eyes about how community development works or doesn’t work. 

An opportunity came up to apply for a fellowship at the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, and even though my background was somewhat nontraditional for that role, my engineering problem-solving abilities were an asset in our work of finding ways to reduce childhood obesity and encourage a healthy lifestyle in children. That charted the path to what I’m doing today.

Chris Watts talks to volunteers and staff at a holiday shopping event organized by former Steelers player Will Allen at the West Mifflin Walmart. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

NEXTpittsburgh: What’s one of the first challenges you’ll take on at Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania?

Watts: How can I get our Clubhouse and school-based sites operating at full capacity. We know there is a high demand for this programming. The 2019 report by the Allegheny County Children’s Fund Working Group looked at the state of early childhood and out-of-school-time programs. There are approximately 230,000 kids in Allegheny County, and according to the report, 70% aren’t going to these programs but would if they could. We have to eliminate barriers to entry. Whoever wants access to this kind of programming should have it. 

NEXTpittsburgh: People aren’t often aware of this aspect of a Boys & Girls Club. 

Watts: The Boys and Girls Clubs are the biggest out-of-school-time provider in Western Pennsylvania. Recently, we started an early childhood preschool program licensed by the state. We also provide before- and after-school programming at the schools themselves throughout the region. It’s helped us reach more kids with a diverse array of opportunities; we can deliver activities that help the whole child, academic success as well as physical fitness, while developing interpersonal skills, character and leadership abilities.

NEXTpittsburgh: And these programs evolve as a child gets older?

Watts: We have comprehensive teen programming focused on productive conflict resolution and career development. Our program that prepares kids for professional experience, internships and placing them with companies across the region is growing. We have a learn-and-earn program that pays kids to be part of a meaningful work experience and then helps them transition into a professional work environment. Our Artificial Intelligence Pathways Institute trains them in practical computing and basic robotics, things they can put on a résumé and use to get into schools or technical institutes. We want to prepare them for the jobs that are coming. We want all kids to have access to these opportunities.

NEXTpittsburgh:  It sounds like Boys & Girls Clubs are doing a lot of what used to be standard components of the public school curriculum. 

Watts: Schools always have played a huge role in helping kids prepare for life after high school. But even though they do a lot, schools can only do so much; having the necessary resources and capacity and staffing for schools is challenging in many communities. Organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs help fill the gaps by supporting schools and communities and helping kids prepare to thrive — whatever that may mean to an individual child.

Pittsburgh is a center for advanced technology. Autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and machine learning are part of a child’s future. We need to unlock the full potential of our population so our kids can have jobs that change lives and careers. 

Chris Watts at the Estelle S. Campbell Boys & Girls Clubs building in Lawrenceville. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

NEXTpittsburgh: How many staff and volunteers do you oversee?

Watts: Forty or so full-time, 90 or so part-time depending on the volume of kids and the season. We have more staff for our summer programs. We have incredible people working to create great outcomes for our kids. 

Youth work is not always easy. Sometimes you are working in communities that have significant trauma or resource limitations. Seeing how our staff works with kids and families through that process is what makes this organization successful.

NEXTpittsburgh: You said you have a son enrolled in a club?

Watts:  Yes, I’m already a club parent and have seen the positive impact on my own son. He goes to after-school care and loves it. He doesn’t want us to pick him up until 5 or 6 o’clock! 

This is an intentional career choice for me. I loved my previous job at Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership and its role in revitalizing Downtown. But I am very grateful for the teachers and mentors who pushed me toward my potential, and I think every kid deserves that opportunity. 

The Boys & Girls Clubs’ motto is “we do whatever it takes” to inspire kids to have a great future, and we do that strategically and sustainably and responsibly. That’s the vision forward.

L.E. McCullough

L.E. McCullough is a Pittsburgh musician/writer/journalist with a lifelong curiosity about who, what, when, where, why and especially how.