For youths trying to find their way through a pandemic, the immediate draw is the chance to play basketball and flag football with committed coaches in a structured setting. But the goal stretches far beyond the games: There’s one-on-one mentoring, academic help, and the support of caring adults who grew up on the streets and learned the hard way how to leave them behind.
“We have our PhDs when it comes to the streets,” said Greg Hill, 44, director of the Safety Through Sports program. “We took the test: Some of it we got right, and some of it we got wrong. But we know the answers.”
Hill has teamed with Frank Coleman, 50, and Tony Hurston, 51, all three of whom belonged to different Boston gangs in their younger days. Now, after working separately with the city’s youth, they have come together to offer an alternative to violence and crime, and a building block toward a full, rewarding life.
“I lived a gang life as hard as you can on the streets of Boston,” said Hurston, a Mattapan man who was acquitted in the 2000 nightclub stabbing of Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce, an assault in which three men were charged.
“I can reach the toughest kid in every neighborhood,” said Hurston, chief executive officer of the Dorchester Eagles, a longtime powerhouse in Pop Warner football. “I have the ability to touch kids that someone else is afraid of. I can jump right in and start a conversation.”
The Boston-based Lewis Family Foundation, whose mission is to build community by empowering young people, is contributing $160,000 toward the five-year initiative, a year-round program offered free to any boy or girl from 8 years old through high school.
That commitment grew from a simple question: “How can we help?” recalled Marisa Meldonian, the foundation’s chief operating officer.
For Coleman, a youth advocate with Friends of the Children, help can come from adult mentors who reach out and influence young people who don’t have other older advisers they trust.
“Sports is just the carrot,” Coleman said. “Whatever problem you have, we can talk it through together. Asking for help might be the easiest thing to do, but it might also be the toughest.”
The trio say without hesitation that their actions once hurt themselves, others, and their neighborhoods. Now, they said, they are compelled to contribute.
“I’ve done prison time and was away for a long time,” said Coleman, who was once a member of the Intervale Street gang. “I know what it took for me to get out, and this is the way I give back. I didn’t have a Greg Hill or a Tony Hurston to help me.”
For Hill, the work is a calling.
“This is not what I do; this is who I am,” he said. “We want to give these kids a family feeling, to get them the love at the end of the day that they desperately need.”
That sense of family includes Mentoring Mondays at the community center, where children from 8 to 12 years old receive help with their schoolwork, as well as dinner and the chance to play flag football.
There’s an entrepreneurship program in which high schoolers visit neighborhood businesses, from barber shops to bakeries, to learn about their needs and help build a business plan.
And there are plenty of sports: every night from Monday through Friday, during the day and evening on Saturday, and from morning to afternoon on Sunday.
“We’ve grown up in the city and know how much sports means to the community,” said Hill, a senior class counselor at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester. He also is cofounder of TEAM New England, a basketball program whose acronym stands for “Team, Empower, Achieve, and Mentor.”
At Safety Through Sports, the overarching goal goes beyond competition and the development of football and basketball skills.
“We really want them to understand what they’re up against. We want to empower them to save their own lives,” Hill said. “It’s really life and death, period. All it takes is one bad move or one mistake.”
Two teenagers who credit Hill with changing their lives are Martin Wilson and Dante Kikuba, high school juniors who said he took them under his wing years ago. Today, they play basketball at Belmont Hill School and Framingham High, respectively, and have their sights set on college.
“As I get older, I realize what it means to be a part of the family. They take time out of their lives to be with us,” Wilson said. “I know some kids who have gone down the wrong path. We are both blessed. We know kids that would like to be in our shoes.”
Kikuba said Hill’s help extends to picking him up at South Station when the commuter train arrives from Framingham, where his family moved from Boston.
“Greg’s always asking if you need food,” Kikuba said. “If I didn’t have that kind of support, I don’t know where I’d be right now.”
For Hill and the other leaders, it’s support with a purpose — for this week, next year, and much further down the road.
“Some people start behind the starting line, and they can’t see past what they’re involved with,” Hill said. “They think their biggest fight is with someone in the neighborhood.”
But there are other fights outside the neighborhood, another world with obstacles to success that can be tougher to see. As a result, the goal is to prepare these young people, not just for basketball and football, but for a contest that lasts a lifetime.
“We’re going to lose some people, but that’s not going to stop us,” Hill said. “We want to get them before the streets get them.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.
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