06/25/07 — Smart Choices seeks help with summer sports program

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Smart Choices seeks help with summer sports program

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on June 25, 2007 1:45 PM

Balmy summer evenings and youths with nothing to do can make for a potentially bad combination, but the solution goes beyond money, says a local youth mentoring coordinator.

Last year, Daryl Woodard, executive director of Smart Choices for Youth, which serves Wayne and Wilson counties, received a $750,000 three-year grant from Communities Empowering Youth. What he needs now is manpower -- people willing to invest in young people.

"We need to get the faith-based community, organizations and churches, in partnership in the community to step up and say, 'This is what we want to do and this is what we need to be done,'" he said.

Gang activity in Wayne County is a real problem, Woodard said, despite what anyone says. And there is one basic reason behind a gang's appeal, he said.

"(It's) from those kids that feel like they have no friends, feel like they're being pushed over or whatever," he said. "It's more about them belonging than where they come from. They want to belong."

Earlier this month, Smart Choices invited a former gang member to speak to students at Dillard Middle School. At the assembly's end, students were invited to sign a pledge promising to stay safe and free from violent activity for 90 days.

Plans are to follow up when those students return in the fall and to expand the effort to the rest of the student body.

In the meantime, Woodard is exploring ideas to provide direction.

His staff is working to get the word out about a program he hopes the public will support -- midnight basketball.

Prompted by the notion that "when the sun goes down kids will have a safe place to go," Woodard said the basketball program is a viable way to draw in youths. Afterwards, things like movies, food and other activities can be added.

"This will help keep the kids off the streets, do some productive things in an organized fashion," he said.

What must first happen, in addition to finding a location for such a program -- Woodard's ideal would be use of a school or two -- is having people come forward.

"We started this in Wilson and response has been overwhelming," he said. "We want to do the same thing in Wayne County, but it takes a lot of volunteers. ... We're relying heavily on the community."

Money is really secondary, Woodard said. Without enough people helping, any program will be limited.

"Based on the volunteer base and response, we will start matching it up as to how many we can really serve," he said.

Woodard's staff is in the process of enlisting support through churches, individuals and civic groups, with hopes of receiving a stamp of approval from groups like the school board and local law enforcement.

His goal is to continue the program into the fall.

"We'll carry it through the warm months because when it gets cold, kids are not hanging out in the streets," he said.

The program, geared to ages 12 to 21, will be free but transportation and parental involvement are each youth's responsibility.

"Parent participation is a must," Woodard said. "Parents have to register the kids and actively be involved."

Donations are also being sought, said Alton Mitchell, coordinator of activities. He is a former basketball player at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and will direct the league and coach.

"We're in need of sturdy (regulation portable) basketball goals, regulation basketballs, jerseys, shorts, even refreshments," he said.

Woodard's concern for the youths of tomorrow is to recognize areas of prevention and act upon them. Crime and mischief, he noted, are not respecters of people.

"Most of the mass shootings that we have had in America, most of those kids have come from very good homes," he said.

"We're not concerned about what part of the town they come from, but that they can feel like they're around other people that are positive. ... We're going to do our part to try to channel the energies -- whether through basketball or what have you -- to have a safe place to go, just do whatever we can."

Anyone interested in supporting the youth program is asked to call 735-0008 or to visit the Web site at www.smartchoicesforyouth.org.