On Wednesdays, at around 9:30 a.m., Lisa Ramos drives to ShopRite. She beelines toward the grocery store’s checkout line, where department managers set aside recently de-shelved donations.
Ground taco meat, macaroni and cheese, hot dogs. Ramos knows by now which meals the kids at The Boys and Girls Club love most and mac and cheese is definitely a fan favorite.
She doesn’t need to prepare fresh meals, though. Ramos acknowledges that she could easily serve half a dozen packages of Chips Ahoy cookies, a few jugs of milk and call it a day. But cooking for the children at The Boys and Girls Club is one of Ramos’ favorite parts of her job.
“A lot of these kids come right after school, and we don’t know if they’re going home to eat,” Ramos said. “We just want them to know that we know that they ate something.”
Ramos became program director of The Boys and Girls Club of Bethlehem 30 years ago, joining the organization shortly after it became coed. The nonprofit provides children in the community, from kindergarten to high school, with a safe space to grow. From offering homework help to organizing recreational activities and field trips, Ramos strives to create an inviting environment where kids genuinely want to spend their free time.
Entering a male-dominated organization as a woman, Ramos is used to challenges. She recalls a boss’s reluctance to the club’s coed transition, and even remembers a group of boys smashing her car’s windows with a fire extinguisher as retaliation for her turning the gym lights off.
Despite these obstacles, Ramos remains level-headed. Her strong will and solid work ethic, much of which she adopted from her mother, earn her respect from both children and coworkers.
Genesis Velazquez, the club’s programming assistant, has worked with Ramos both personally and professionally. Velazquez met Ramos as a 6-year-old Boys and Girls Club member, where Ramos provided her with one-on-one academic attention. Though Velazquez described her as initially being a “hard-ass,” Ramos’ tough love is what motivated Velazquez to care about her studies and to eventually apply to Northampton Community College.
“(Ramos is) the one who got me into college and has helped me since day one,” Velazquez said.
Velazquez opened up to Ramos and soon viewed her as more than just a tutor but as a “second mother.” 16 years later, her mentor is now her coworker.
Ramos loves keeping in touch with past club members and is proud to see alumni go on to become NFL athletes, NBA athletes, military officials and more. Watching the success of the children she worked with warms Ramos’ heart, and she often tries to connect current members with alumni.
But while many of the organization’s kids go on to achieve great things, Ramos said she must face the harsh reality that not everyone thrives after leaving.
“After all these years I like to see some of the accomplishments that these kids have made — and there’s been a lot — but you always have to remember there are going to be some that just are not going to make it,” Ramos said.
Gang-ridden violence was prevalent, especially near the club’s South Side home base. Older gang members in the area, not affiliated with the club, would lure younger children. While she strives to create a safe haven, Ramos realizes that once children walk out the club’s doors at 10 p.m., there is nothing more she can do.
“It was kids that we knew, but they were doing it in the shadows,” Ramos said. “They were different to your face than what they were doing at night when we weren’t around.”
Though it is difficult seeing children she works with fall into the wrong crowds, Ramos said that most kids who give her a hard time apologize or make amends.
Just a few weeks ago, a woman in her late 20s awaited Ramos in the club’s hallway. Having not seen the woman since she was just a teenager, Ramos didn’t immediately recognize her. The woman apologized for accidentally encouraging a group of boys to put a large rock on Ramos’ car nearly 10 years ago, an action Ramos never knew the woman to be involved in.
Years later, the guilt had still been weighing on her. Ramos was moved. She called her mother, who she speaks to on the phone every day, to tell her the news.
“I said, ‘Mom, you’re not going to believe that after all these years she came back and apologized,’” Ramos said, choking back tears.
These long-lasting connections, and her passion for helping others, have kept Ramos in this rewarding line of work for three decades. People remember Ramos and her impact long after they leave the club.
Donna Hanna, Ramos’ childhood friend, said that Ramos’ personality hasn’t changed. Her bubbliness has been consistent, from elementary school to now. The duo has always prided themselves on being polar opposites. While Hanna was, and still is, more reserved, Ramos will talk to anyone and everyone.
In their 20s, Hanna recalls Ramos dragging her to a bar of primarily 40-year-olds. Hanna initially questioned Ramos, curious why her friend would choose a club where they were decades younger than the typical customer. Yet as the two danced to the music popular in their parents’ generation, laughing hysterically as Ramos befriended strangers, Hanna said they had the greatest time. Ramos’ same infectious personality, evident in the bar years ago, is present in her work today.
Regardless of where they are or what they’re doing, Hanna said the two can make any situation worthwhile. To this day, Ramos and Hanna talk on the phone every night to catch up, debrief on that day’s events and reminisce. Despite nightly calls, the two never run out of things to say.
Often helping out at the club, Hanna said it is clear that kids gravitate toward Ramos. Her fun-loving nature is magnetic and her genuine love for children is palpable.
“If you put Lisa in a place, there will be kids there,” Hanna said, laughing. “You can’t go anywhere without knowing Lisa.”