ROX Interview: Matt Lemberg

Matt Lemberg

Executive Director, Boys & Girls Clubs of the Casa Grande Valley

Interview by Bea Lueck

I have had the pleasure of knowing Matt since he started at the Boys & Girls Club 18 years ago. As the teen and athletic director, at times it was hard to tell Matt from the kids. Truth be told, there are still times his youthful antics and enthusiasm are apparent. There were plenty of naysayers when he first assumed the role of executive director. There were also plenty of supporters who wanted to give him a chance to make the job his. As time moved forward, the number of supporters grew as Matt grew into the position. He faced every challenge with a smile and steadfastness. Rarely did you see him get ruffled when something went awry — even the time the water heater at the old gym sprung a major leak, flooding the administrative office in general and Matt’s office the worst. 

During his tenure the Club has grown from two locations to soon to be six. The number of youth served went from 250 to over 650 daily. The budget needed to operate six clubs has grown as well. Grants and fundraising efforts account for about 80% of the Club’s operational dollars. Under Matt’s tutelage, the Club has been able to continue to grow and provide services to the Casa Grande area youth. I probably haven’t told him enough, Matt I’m proud of you. 

GC LIVING: I finally have the opportunity to sit down and interview a longtime friend, Matt Lemberg, the executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Casa Grande Valley. Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

Matt Lemberg: I was born in Huntsville, Alabama, and lived there until I was 8, and then our family moved to Casa Grande. I would say I grew up in Casa Grande, but not quite born and raised in Casa Grande.

GC LIVING: Close enough by most standards. Tell us about your family. 

Matt Lemberg: I have two siblings. My brother, Timothy, is three years younger than me and my sister, Erin, is six years younger. We grew up in the Casa Grande elementary and high school system. 

GC LIVING: Your father, Rick Lemberg, was a long-time pastor at First Presbyterian Church. Were you the typical preacher’s kid?

Matt Lemberg: Oh yes. I was the pot-stirring, never got caught but kind of leading the charge of silliness pastor’s kid. 

GC LIVING: I remember a youthful piercing or two.

Matt Lemberg: I was definitely told in great disappointment, “Matt, what are you doing? Your dad is a man of the cloth,” more than once. So, yes, I was a pastor’s kid, complete with all the fun challenges. 

In addition to being a pastor’s kid and spending a lot of time in church, the youth pastor, Michael Dahl, and the youth leaders, particularly Paul Cooper, were huge influences on my life. Because of their influence, I thought I would become a youth pastor.

A D-minus in an Old Testament class the first semester in college changed that direction. It was an eight o’clock class, my first semester of college. I wasn’t doing horrible things, I was just not sleeping, and I wasn’t prepared for the difficulty of this class and was failing. The professor actually called my dad and said, “Hey, Mr. Lemberg. I think your son is on drugs.” And my dad said, “I am not going to promise you he’s not, but I’m pretty sure he’s not.” “Well, then I don’t think he’s college material,” is what the professor told my dad.

GC LIVING: What college was that?

Matt Lemberg: I went to Whitworth College — it is now Whitworth University, in Spokane, Washington.

 I loved it. It gave me the opportunity to be far away from Casa Grande. Like a lot of kids who grow up here, I was excited to get out. Jumping ahead, I’m very glad I’m back. At the time, a small Christian college in a different climate was going to allow me to do some snowboarding, and the opportunity to play tennis. It checked a lot of boxes for me. 

GC LIVING: On a positive note, you not only graduated from college, you went on to get your MBA.

Matt Lemberg: I survived, stayed in college and even survived academic probation. (laughs) 

GC LIVING: I’m guessing your parents had you on probation from life after that.

Matt Lemberg: Oh yeah. I never knew you could hear someone shaking their head in disgust over the phone until the day I told my dad about that D-minus. In the end I pulled it together and passed the class and went on to graduate. The next step was to get an MBA from Northern Arizona University. That was the toughest year of my life academically. I thought the jump from high school to college was big and that one was even more so.

GC LIVING: You were dating Corrie then, weren’t you?

Matt Lemberg: Corrie and I were engaged that year I was at NAU. We’d been dating for about three years at that time, all long-distance. She was at ASU and I was at Whitworth and then NAU. We’ve been married since 2002. 

GC LIVING: And you survived the wedding in spite of the Lakers jersey. 

Matt Lemberg: That’s right. That’s right. Anytime I can talk about the Lakers is an opportunity I want to take. The Lembergs are huge LA sports fans. It’s where most of our extended family lives. Game four of the 2002 Western Conference Finals was the day of our wedding. And that doesn’t mean a lot to most people until I say it was the day Robert Horry hit the three at the buzzer to win the game and tie the series. Having known that that had happened, my brother went home and got a Lakers jersey and I wore it into the reception and was booed very violently.

I was concerned at first it was just Corrie’s side of the family who were booing me. But I think Suns fans were too.

GC LIVING: You and Corrie have three sons.

Matt Lemberg: Yes. God bless that woman. 

GC LIVING: You married up.

Matt Lemberg: I definitely married up. There is this half-joke, half-truth. There is not anyone in the world who knows us both that likes me more than her. My joke, our yin and yang, is that she has all the talent but gives herself no credit and I have no talent but give myself all the credit. We work perfect together (laughs). Bea, don’t nod in agreement!

GC LIVING: (laughs) I’m sorry.

Matt Lemberg: Please note that the interviewer is nodding in agreement. Seriously, she’s phenomenal. Corrie grew up here, her family is still here. She graduated ASU, and went on to be an elementary school teacher, first in the Toltec Elementary School District and then in the Casa Grande Elementary School District. And when our children were born she stayed home to raise and homeschool our children. Gavin is 11, Noah is 7, and Colin is 4. 

GC LIVING: Your faith is important to you. To the point you actually did become a minister.

Matt Lemberg: (laughs) So is Homer Simpson, though, on one episode.

GC LIVING: But did you buy the degree online for $29.95?

Matt Lemberg: I think I just checked a box online. When you get a D-minus in an Old Testament class you can’t become a youth pastor. Seriously, faith is very important to both Corrie and I and part of our family. We attend Calvary Chapel here in Casa Grande now and love our church. We led youth group for many years and through some of those relationships a number of our youth group kids asked if I would officiate their wedding.

GC LIVING: So now you’re out of college and looking for employment. How did you end up at the Boys & Girls Club?

Matt Lemberg: I graduated from NAU in May of 2002. We got married two weeks later; Corrie had one more year of ASU. I was working for a 1-800 call-in debt-consolidation place. It was not for me but it was a needed job at the time. We lived in Mesa and were coming to Casa Grande to help my best friend, Ben Marquez, the youth pastor at First Presbyterian Church with some things. Dave Ellis, a local business owner, was an elder at the First Presbyterian Church and a board member with the Boys & Girls Club. The Club was looking for a teen and athletic director and he connected me with the Club staff.

GC LIVING: Was soccer going at that time?

Matt Lemberg: The Boys & Girls Club took over soccer the year before I came — we just finished our 18th season this year. And I’ve been here for 17 of them. One big role when I was hired was running the soccer league each fall. The other half was working with teens. I spent a lot of time at the middle schools, hosting open gym and school dances. I did that for just under two years. And in January of ‘05, I took over as executive director. 

GC LIVING: What was going on with the organization at that time?

Matt Lemberg: The Arizona City elementary school location opened just before I came on and we were a two-club entity at that point. I loved it. I was fairly young professionally, and was blessed with phenomenal board members, and a strong board. Certainly in those early years there were a number of people who really helped me develop the needed leadership skills, and management styles — just all the things I hadn’t experienced. I understood working with the kids and understood what I’d learned in college about running businesses, but now I needed to learn about working with a wide and varied group of people — board members and the community. Matt Herman was the board president when I came on. He was followed by Kai Gerkey, Ross Feezer and then you … 

GC LIVING: Nope. Greg Gates was before me.

Matt Lemberg: That’s right, you took over midterm for Greg Gates when he moved. So many people were instrumental to our organization’s success over the past 21 years, not only getting the Boys & Girls Clubs off the ground, but in helping get the organization to where we are today. 

GC LIVING: The Club recently had a major announcement.

Matt Lemberg: Yes! We just announced we’re going to open our sixth club in July. We’re opening a club at Santa Cruz Elementary School in Maricopa. I’m very excited about that. We had our first club-related conversation with people in Maricopa in 2010. Looking back, it wasn’t the right time for anybody for several different reasons. 

GC LIVING: Having been part of those 2010 conversations, most of it at that time was economic.

Matt Lemberg: The State of Arizona was in the downturn market. Grants that were previously available had dried up. Donations were down. The Club could not economically take on the financial responsibility of a new site and risk failing.

GC LIVING: Financially, the Club is primarily funded by donations and grants. Very little of the budget is from the membership fees.

Matt Lemberg: Right. Today about 20% of our $1.2 million budget comes from membership fees. We are better prepared today to grow effectively than we would have been 10 years ago. We’ve grown over the years and have an amazing team of people who are prepared to launch a new Club.

We completed our strategic plan about a year and a half ago and we want to serve young people throughout Pinal County. Maricopa is exploding population-wise. There is not many things for young people to do during the out of school time so it was a very natural fit. The Maricopa school district and city have been great to us.

GC LIVING: How many youth do you impact each year now?

Matt Lemberg: At our five current clubs we see about 650 kids every day through our afterschool programs. Then we have members who play on our soccer league. We also have “other youth served” in a program called Smart Moves, which is a prevention program that we take into elementary schools. With those two things combined, members and other youth services, we served 4,200 young people in our community in 2018.

GC LIVING: Have you been able to add programs or services since moving to the rec center?

Matt Lemberg: Our internal joke is we’ve gone from the first flip-phone to the iPhone X overnight. I would have told you that the old high school gym location was old when I graduated from that gym in 1997. And then we were in it for 20 years. Kids are rough on things.

 We have more space, more program space, so we can fit comfortably and effectively more young people. It’s a better-designed space. It’s not a renovated locker room like we used to have. The rooms are bigger. Our computer lab is 2 1/2 times what it used to be. The most exciting thing is we upgraded the teen center. I’ve seen great teen centers run out of closets, and I’ve seen beautiful buildings not have any teens come. A big piece of the success within that space for teens is having caring staff, and our teens know that. It’s fun to walk by and just see 90 or 100 or 110 middle school and high school kids in there. At the old facility we had space for about 30 middle school kids. Being able to triple last year’s numbers is my favorite part about what the new building has allowed us to do.

GC LIVING: You’ve been with the Boys & Girls Club: first, as teen and athletic director and then, executive director for what – 17 years now?

Matt Lemberg: April of ‘03 was the start date, so yes, coming up on 17. 

GC LIVING: So, what’s the future bring for Matt Lemberg? You haven’t been pounding the streets to get out of Dodge. Casa Grande is home.

Matt Lemberg: Yes, Casa Grande’s home. I grew up here. My wife’s family still lives here. My sister and her family live in Chandler. Our ties are here and I love this community. This community supported me as I grew up and grew into the position. I’m a product of this community and could absolutely see myself being here my whole career. The exciting part is there are opportunities to open new clubs in our area.

Now however, I’ve told Corrie if the Los Angeles Dodgers ever called I would accept the job without talking to her, but I’m pretty sure I would have to talk to her about any other job offers. This is where I want to be. 

GC LIVING: What are some of the changes in the challenges of a youth organization you’ve seen in the last 17 years? Obviously, some of the challenges the kids faced 17 years ago are different than today’s challenges. How does the Boys & Girls Club adapt?

Matt Lemberg: I think the easy answer is social media. Social media didn’t exist when I started. I’m glad social media didn’t exist when I was in high school. We want to be a safe place for kids to go when they’re not in school, and we want to help them navigate life. Over the last 10 years, especially, around young people, mental health issues is a great conversation, that as a society we’re having for all people but certainly for youth. 

Another challenge over the last 17 years with more computer use is that kids are not outside playing together. They’re not as social or as physically active. We’ve looked at a couple times about starting an e-sports league. 

GC LIVING: In order to provide the services mentioned, money is always a driving factor to provide staff, equipment, resources and the ability to open new clubs. This year the Club has a new fundraiser, “Dancing for our Stars”. How did that come about?

Matt Lemberg: Statewide the Boys & Girls Club executives get together a couple times a year. We were talking about fundraising and Gerald Szostak, the executive director at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Arizona, started telling us about an event I think they had taken from the American Kidney Association. We had been talking for a couple years about changing the format of our annual dinner. It’s a nice format but a number of organizations in town have them. It’s not anything unique. The television show, Dancing for the Stars continues to be popular and unique. The fundraising potential with this is unlimited because much of this is online. Anyone in the world could donate at $10 a vote. The better we do at promoting it, the more money we can raise so we’re really excited about it. 

GC LIVING: You’ve got a team of local celebrity dancers including the Battle of the Mayors – Mayor McFarland from Casa Grande and Mayor Price from Maricopa. They’ve been paired with professional dancers, including your wife, Corrie, and all have been dancing their feet off preparing for the big event at the Pence Center.

To purchase tickets people can go online to the website, to your Facebook page and of course, call the club. I see the celebrities themselves sharing their links online. 

Matt Lemberg: Bring your cell phones to the event. There will be online voting during the competition!

GC LIVING: The Club has done a number of fundraisers over the years. Some have been very popular and some have been very … unique. How did the monkey tail come to be? 

Matt Lemberg: So the monkey tail… Someone sent me picture of some funny facial hair, and I didn’t realize at that point what kind of death trap you would fall into on Google if you type in “funny facial hair.” Looking through pictures of obnoxious beards and different things I found one called, “The Monkey Tail.” At that point in my life I had a marriage compromise and got three months of facial hair control every year November 1st to January 31st. I thought it’d be funny to have a monkey tail beard. My lovely bride is a beautiful, understanding woman, but I knew that was going to be a difficult ask and needed to tie it to the Boys & Girls Club in some way. At that time we were interested in seeing if you could raise money through Facebook. So I took photos at various events and posted them to Facebook. We ended up raising several thousand dollars.

 Fundraising looks different than when I started in ‘05. Many organizations have a dinner or golf tournament. What can we do different to stand out? We felt “Dancing for Our Stars” was a good fit for our community to offer something new and exciting while raising funds.

People no longer give to a nonprofit just because it makes them feel good. They want to see a return on their investment. Our return is we see 650 kids every day. A recent national study found that young people were more likely to demonstrate greater positive outcomes related to academic success, good character and citizenship, and healthy lifestyles when they attended a Boys & Girls Club at least 52 days per year (and the positive effects were even greater when they attended at least 104 days per year). 

With these results in mind, we recently partnered with the Casa Grande Elementary School District to compile the state test scores of Club members and compare them to district averages. For the sixth year in a row, members who attended Club programs more than 104 days were more likely to pass these tests than were their peers who did not attend one of our Clubs. Last year, 208 students (in grades 3-8) attended a Club more than 104 days. These Club members were 3% more likely to pass the ELA (english language arts) portion and 7% more likely to pass the math portion of the AzMERIT Test than were those students who never attended one of our Clubs! Our organization is very proud of these results, which show some of the impact that we are having on our Club members! 

 Five years ago, we had three clubs. Now we’re four months out from having six. To move into a new building and open a new club within 15 months is aggressive. We’re appreciative for the leadership and the vision and the desire to serve kids, knowing that to meet that desire, we’re going to have to work harder. Two and three years ago, our board received the National Boys & Girls Club Board Awards. It was great to receive national recognition for the board’s efforts.

GC LIVING: What haven’t we covered?

Matt Lemberg: Well summer registration is coming up in April and soccer registration is in the fall. We always need coaches.

I also have a personal project. I’m part of a group that has been working the last couple years to bring Young Life back to Casa Grande. Young Life is a non-denominational high school outreach ministry. We have been raising funds and we’re hoping to launch soon. 

Photo: Lemberg family portrait. L-R  Gavin, Matt, Corrie, Noah and Colin.