Sun Commentary — In their own words: For two hours at a time, a safe haven and some hoops

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Youth basketball

Sun Staff / Worcester Sun

Youths play basketball at Worcester East Middle School on Wednesday. The open-gym program moved to Claremont Academy on Thursday. The program, a collaboration of the Worcester Police Department, Worcester Public Schools, Worcester Youth Center and Straight Ahead Ministries, seeks to bring together at-risk youth in a safe environment.

As part of the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative, the Worcester Youth Center, Straight Ahead Ministries, Worcester Police Department and Worcester Public Schools opened school gyms this summer to try to reach at-risk youth through basketball.

We went to Worcester East Middle School on Wednesday and Claremont Academy on Thursday. Twenty-seven kids showed up on Wednesday, fewer than half that on Thursday.

We met with organizers, Worcester Public Schools Liaison Rob Pezzella, District 3 City Councilor George Russell and the youths to hear their take on the program and the violence in the city this summer. Many kids declined to be interviewed, some only if we did not use their last names. The following conversations have been edited only for clarity and brevity.

GEORGE RUSSELL, Worcester City Councilor

“I was very, very encouraged to see the turnout and hear the discussion. I heard one kid talking about how he wanted to be a (NBA) basketball player, and one of the counselors talking to him about being an electrician, a banker. These men are strong role models, and there’s enormous value in that.

“Straight Ahead Ministries and (the other organizations) are working hard, and I’m very impressed with the work they do in the neighborhoods.

“The city and the City Council have always supported these organizations, and that’s money well spent.”

CHARLES LUSTER, Worcester Youth Center
“The first thing we have to do is build relationships, and that’s what we’re doing here. We’re building relationships while giving these kids a chance to do something positive. And for two hours, at least we know they’re safe here doing something positive. Towards the end, we always get a chance to give them some advice.

“We get a chance to teach our younger little brothers how to be young men and what we expect of them; and it’s great because they take on the challenge with whatever we ask. But for these guys (Gabe and Heath, see below) to come on this side of town, when some of these guys were their enemies before, but now these guys see that these two guys are a symbol of our community, of ‘You can get it right.’

“Jobs change lives, especially jobs that you can support your family, now you change lives. This isn’t a race thing, this isn’t a gang thing. This is an economic thing.”

DUVONE MITCHELL, Worcester Youth Center and therapeutic mentor, New Beginnings Wellness Center
“I think there is a different approach you have to take when solving this problem. A lot of these kids have had their fathers murdered in the streets, so there’s trauma involved.

“There’s no difference between these kids that have seen their friends get shot than a guy coming from the army. You’re in the army and you see a guy’s head get blown off, there’s trauma, PTSD; same thing with these kids.

“Once you deal with the trauma, then you can start dealing with the underlying problem.

“These kids, if you give them jobs without dealing with that trauma, they won’t be able to appreciate those jobs. They won’t be able to see getting up every morning for the job because of the fact that some of them have neighbor drug dealers, and the drug dealer gives them money, and they make money doing that. You gotta deal with the trauma.

Sports is “a tool of engagement. I’m also a third-degree mentor as well, so I do that with them as well. … So with that I use sports, like fishing, take the kids out of their direct environment, now you’re able to engage and talk to them. … You take them there, out of their environment, and now it’s cool to talk to you. Then you can peel the onion away and get them to the core problem.

“Some people say it’s jobs, but it’s not just jobs. Jobs are just one thing, but if you don’t deal with trauma you can’t get to the jobs.”

RON WADDELL, outreach worker, Straight Ahead Ministries
“The only discouraging thing about that is the fact that when we talk about ‘Do you have money for that?’ is when it comes to an economic thing.

“‘Do you have enough money for more outreach workers?’ So you tell me, ‘no,’ but you have money to lock up somebody, which costs $47,000 once you arrest someone and put them in lockup. So you tell me that you don’t have more money to provide for outreach workers to do this work. So that’s the discouraging thing. We get the rhetoric of ‘we really want to fix this problem,’ but they’re not really invested in it.

“We’re looking at the educational disparities, the economic disparities … Stop being reactive and saying that we need more arrests; let’s be more proactive and say ‘From the cradle, where are the disadvantages at and how do we close those gaps?’ and that’s where we are now. That’s the discouraging thing to me, is hearing from political leaders, they’re saying, ‘This is what we’d like to do, this is what we’d like to see,’ however when it comes time for rubber to meet the road, it’s not happening.

“So about fixing it now, it’s a great question. However, we didn’t get here now. It’s a process to get here so it’s a process to unwind this. That’s the thing we have to be committed to. The outreach thing for the summer is great, let’s sustain that; that’s how you start to shift the tide of things.

“All these things we’re talking about, training programs and things like that absolutely, but it’s change and the process has to be able to work itself. To build a relationship with these young men, it takes time … to get to the point where they’re going to trust you, especially with some of the experiences that they’ve been through. …  I don’t know if there’s a snap-your-fingers quick fix to it. It’s a process we have to be engaged in as a community, both partners, political leadership, everyone.”

“I was in a gang and then I started doing the Straight Ahead ministry stuff. I got out of the gang, they smartened me up.”

GABE, 20, outreach worker, Straight Ahead Ministries
“For the entire time I’ve been in the (Straight Ahead Ministries) program, which is almost three years now, and the whole three years, I wasn’t necessarily doing what I was supposed to be doing. But they never gave up on me. They kept showing me grace, and it’s basically getting something you don’t deserve. And they kept showing me that grace, and eventually they got it through my head and positive things came out of it. Straight Ahead Ministries, I have nothing but good to say about them and what they’ve done.

“The basketball program is great too. … Usually, interaction between a kid from the south side area of Worcester and the east side area, their interactions are never positive at all, you know, with the gang wars and that’s messed up. People out there are shooting each other and they don’t even know each other from a hole in the wall. … This is (a) place that we can come together, no violence, nobody’s here with bad intentions. We’re all here to have a good time and to build relationships with one another that we didn’t have before.

“I was in a gang and then I started doing the Straight Ahead ministry stuff. I got out of the gang, they smartened me up.

“They made me realize that me being out on the streets was not worth me losing my life. I have a daughter, so if I die or go to jail, if I die, who’s going to take care of my daughter? That’s the type of thing they nailed into my head. I have a family. I’m 20 years old. I’m not trying to lose my life this young. Actually, I’m an outreach worker for Straight Ahead Ministries, but I’ve been dreaming about doing this stuff since I was 14, 15 years old.

“I did not have any positive role models in my life whatsoever. So even if I did have a dream to be an outreach worker, I had nobody to show me how to do it, I had nobody to show me the ropes. I had nobody to keep me (out) of trouble long enough to go and actually pursue that.

“It’s my friends that are getting shot out here. It’s people who I grew up with. It’s sad to say people out here are dying and stuff, it does impact us because it’s people I grew up with. It’s sad. I chose a different road. I tried to bring, to shed light on as many of them as I could. But sometimes they would just brush me off, start talking smack. I just want them to realize like I did that these streets are full. This basketball gym right here is one of the ways that we’re trying to do it. We have south side kids interacting with east side kids in a positive manner, playing basketball together, and that eases the tension. … If they get along here on the basketball court, they’ll get along when they get out of here too. I was out here fighting with them before I even knew them and now that I’m here, they’re pretty cool. It relieves a lot of tension out on the streets.

“This is just the start right here. It cannot end with this. If it ends with this, with just a couple weeks of basketball and with a month or two of work with these kids, where are your priorities? What are you really trying to do? Because you have to actually build that relationship with these youth out here for them to respect you and listen to your advice.”

“I feel safe. When I come here, I feel like a part of something big. Trying to help Worcester change.”

HEATH, 23, outreach worker, Straight Ahead Ministries
“I feel like (the program is) working right now, but still got a lot of big steps to go. But if we keep it year-round instead of just the summer, I think it could be a big change. … I notice some kids are trying to change the area. This isn’t my area, I’m from the Main South area, and for us to try to (put) this all aside and just ball up, I think it’s something big.

“If this program wasn’t going on I think a lot worse would be happening (than) just has been happening. A lot of these kids would be bored and when you get bored, that’s when you get in trouble.

“I feel safe. When I come here, I feel like a part of something big. Trying to help Worcester change.

“Well from the Main South area, I’ve seen a lot of change. A lot of kids don’t really hang around down by the chicken spot and Benefit, they go to Straight Ahead, go to the Youth Center.”

“I think saying (violence) will get worse is not having any hope. We have to recognize that this is a process that will not happen overnight. It takes time.”

EGBERT PINERO, 27, outreach worker, Worcester Youth Center
“They’re just going to keep reigniting a flame. It’s hard to tell one side of the city to calm down and it’s not necessarily their fault. One side just has more services available in their location.

“I think that when we have open gyms at East Middle, they flock to it, because something’s suddenly available. This is why we have this amount of kids here, you know, who find something like this (valuable). If this place shuts down, I know Worcester Youth Center has some recreational space free with pool tables and Straight Ahead Ministries has their rec room down in the basement with pool and ping-pong. For the younger ones, you have the Boys and Girls Club, for people who can put their kids in there. There’s options on (that) side of the city.

“I think saying (violence) will get worse is not having any hope. We have to recognize that this is a process that will not happen overnight. It takes time, it could take years to actually visually feel comfortable and see any effect. It’s one thing to see it on papers and graphs and charts, it’s one thing to feel it coming from the kids and the streets.”

Youth basketball

Sun Staff / Worcester Sun

Youths play basketball at Worcester East Middle School on Wednesday. The open-gym program moved to Claremont Academy on Thursday. The program, a collaboration of the Worcester Police Department, Worcester Public Schools, Worcester Youth Center and Straight Ahead Ministries, seeks to bring together at-risk youth in a safe environment.

SHAQUAN, 19, basketball player
I came here “to play basketball. To play with other people. … This is my second time. I like it. It’s keeping the kids off the streets. … It’ll probably help them out better at school.

“I don’t really know what to say about it (this summer’s violence). It’s terrible.”

FRANCESCA, 16, basketball player
“I don’t think (the summer violence) is as bad (as people make it out to be). You just have to mind your business and stuff like that.”

“I think even if you arrest them they’re going to come back out and do it again. There’s been a lot of people who’ve been arrested and they come out, they’re still doing the same things.”

Claremont Academy student, 18, basketball player
“I personally know a lot of gang people.

“But, like, they know me as a basketball player, so nobody messes with me because they know I play basketball everywhere. I go wherever to play basketball. You could say I’m good with both sides.

“I think it’s (the violence) gotten worse than before. I don’t know what you should do to stop it. It has gotten worse from what I’ve heard over the summer. (But it doesn’t affect you?) No, because like I said I don’t associate with that. I know most of the people, yes, but I personally won’t be harmed because I’m not in there with them.

“I think if it keeps going the way it’s going, it’s going to get worse and worse. Because there’s been more shootings this summer than there has been, like, in the last 10 years in Worcester, just this summer. Every day on the news, you see someone in Massachusetts getting hurt in a fight or something.

“I think even if you arrest them they’re going to come back out and do it again.

“There’s been a lot of people who’ve been arrested and they come out, they’re still doing the same things.

Regarding the culture of silence: “They don’t like the word ‘snitch.’ Nobody likes to snitch on somebody. If they want to keep their city safe, people eventually have to do something about it. Because it has gotten worse this summer, but I don’t think they’ve found a way to fix it.”

This article was originally published in the Aug. 23, 2015 edition of the Sun.

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