Liji Hanny of South Haven says his life is blessed, from his family to his job as director of operations at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor.
But that doesn’t mean he’s never had heartache. When he was 10 years old growing up in Champaign, Ill., he said his best friend, Curlie, was murdered.
“I loved my childhood because I had so much fun,” said Hanny, 51, who is the third youngest of 10 siblings. “But when Curlie was murdered, it shattered my reality.”
At about the same time, he said one of his cousins was killed while in college. That’s when one of his friends suggested he start attending the Don Moyer Boys & Girls Club in Champaign to play basketball.
“I was angry at the world when I started going to the Boys & Girls Club,” he said. “I’m blessed I had two really great parents who loved me and provided for me in every way possible. But without the Boys & Girls Club being interjected into my life at the time it was, I probably might be in a whole different place in my life.”
Hanny said he has shared his struggles with club members in Benton Harbor.
“I think sometimes adults make the mistake of trying to protect kids, and they’re not allowing kids to know that becoming an adult is a journey, a process,” he said. “There are good times. There are bad times. ... Communicating that with young people is the best way to be able to get young people to realize that the difficult time they are in in this moment will pass. I think that’s what makes us as an organization really unique. We allow who we are as people to be seen.”
Hanny sat down with Staff Writer Louise Wrege recently to talk about his life.
How was your childhood?
It was great. We were poor. We struggled, but I didn’t know it. I just had a lot of brothers and sisters.
My mother and father had what I call cornerstone personalities. They were never afraid to help someone, no matter how difficult that was on them. They always found a way to help. That example was set for me and I didn’t even know I was going to end up turning into someone who would do those things because it drove me completely insane. I was like, this is my mom. This is my dad. Why are you sitting at my table eating dinner?
My friends used to make it to my house before I did. My mom, she wasn’t a good cook. She was a great cook. To say people came over to my house to eat was an understatement.
My dad was a big personality. Every kid was his kid. He showed everybody love and support. I didn’t know it until I was in that place that I was following in the footsteps of my parents. I didn’t do it purposefully.
How did the club help you get over your friend’s murder?
The club I went to, there was a guy whose name was “C.C.” He joked a lot. I thought I was just going to be there playing basketball. He used to tell me, “You don’t have to feel bad because something bad happens. You just need to understand that it was outside of your control and there’s things you can do to make things better.”
It was rough. I wasn’t trusting the world. I didn’t really want to have friends. Going to the Boys & Girls Club helped me learn to trust again. The club helped me refocus on just being a kid.
“C.C.” was a really good guy. I had a lot of fun there. We were adjacent to the University of Illinois, so I got to meet a lot of football players and when you’re a little kid, getting to meet football players that you saw on TV on Saturday was pretty cool.
How is your life now?
I’m truly blessed in a lot of different ways. I’m blessed to have had the parents that I had. I’m blessed to have been a club kid. But I’m also blessed to work for an organization that values their employees enough to invest in their development. We understand that our number one resource and the number one reason that we are able to help and assist kids in growing up is the people. Our people are awesome. We have a plan in place to help our staff develop. Boys & Girls Club of America has, in a lot of respects, endless resources being pumped into the development of executive level, management level and youth development professional level to assure that we’re going to deliver not just quality programs, but great programs.
Since we as an organization adopted the continuous quality improvement model, we as an organization plan to continue to improve. We have expectations of our staff to do that. We put plans in place and processes in place that encourage that. Therefore, those same individuals are role modeling to our young people about the importance of continuing to improve.
If you’re a lifelong learner and you’re open to the possibility of getting better on a day-to-day basis, whether you’re a kid, a parent, a volunteer, an employee, a board member,the opportunity for growth is here. And that is one of the reasons I love working for this organization because if you’re willing to put a plan together for your growth and work that plan, you will find support to make sure that you meet the goals of that plan here.
Do you have any hobbies?
Family and friends, if family and friends can be a hobby. Inside of that, food. I love to eat. One of the things that I learned from my mother is to cook. I love to cook. I love to eat. So everything I do is centered around what I’m going to cook or what I’m going to eat. In my house, you wake up and you ask, “what are we going to have for breakfast?”
Then the next question is, “What are we having for dinner?” We don’t even think about lunch.
Volunteering and coaching in youth sports. I love it. Being able to coach my daughter in soccer and volleyball when she was younger. But when she got older, she didn’t want me coaching anymore. You’ve got to let go.
I coach my son now. I’ve coached girls volleyball, girls soccer, boys soccer, baseball and basketball.
Do you always coach a team your son or daughter are on?
Yes. I work a lot. When I’m not at work, I want to make sure I’m spending time with my wife and kids. We have a lot of fun. I have a great group of friends who feel the same way about their family units.
My friends, we’re not trying to get away from our kids or our spouses. We’re trying to figure out what’s the next fun and crazy thing we can do together.
That’s really what I do in my spare time. I cook. I eat. I hang with my kids and my wife. My hobbies are really centered around doing whatever it is with my kids.
Tell me about the award you recently won.
When I won the Tom Burt Pacesetter Award, I felt completely uncomfortable. The reason being is anything I have been a part of has been strictly because of the people that I’m surrounded with. I work for and with a great group of people who are passionate, who are smart, who are hardworking, who will do what’s required to make sure these kids get the kind of support that they need on a day-to-day basis. The norm here from our employees is that they go above and beyond. I’m just the individual who got the award. But the award is really for every employee here because they are awesome. We’re a family here.
What is the award for?
Tom Burt is from Michigan and he was known for creating opportunities for his employees to grow and to prepare them to take on new and different roles. The truth of the matter is I didn’t know my name was thrown into the hat. The wonderful people I work with nominated me without telling me.