Courting new togetherness
Peace tourney bridges neighborhood gaps
From his post at the scorer’s table at the Kroc Center, Hector Rodriguez had the best view of both then and now.
He worked the scoreboard all day yesterday for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley’s Basketball for Peace Tournament.
He watched the 12- to 17-year-olds from a handful of Greater Boston youth programs - the Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corporation in Jamaica Plain, the Condon Community Center in South Boston, the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, the Revere Police Athletic League, and the Teen Center at St. Peter’s - get up and down the floor all afternoon.
But when he looked at some of the faces from the Salvation Army’s Bridging the Gap program, he could see some of himself. The program works directly with court-involved youth in Boston, and just last year Rodriguez was working his way through it.
“It’s cool, because I felt like I was in their shoes before,’’ said Rodriguez, 17. “From there to now, I can see myself so much better than I was before.’’
Before he came to Bridging the Gap, Rodriguez missed close to two years of school. The courts had to intervene. His judge suggested the program. Skeptical at first, he met with program director Joel Furrow, and from there he never missed a day.
His process was eight weeks long. The group setting gave him a support system. He opened up around other people. He now works at the Kroc Center near Codman Square.
“The main thing I learned from Bridging the Gap was worrying about myself more, being more confident about stuff I do,’’ Rodriguez said. “It built a lot of confidence in myself.’’
“All I was was angry. My main emotion was angry. But being around all this, it lifted that away. Now I’m more confident in what I’m doing.’’
In two years, the Bridging the Gap program has helped more than 200 local kids. Of those that graduate, 80 percent of them do not return to court.
“That means that they’re making some positive decisions,’’ said Furrow, a 27-year-old Virginia native who lives in Codman Square near the Kroc Center. “It’s empowering them to actually own their own decisions, to take life and actually enjoy it, take life for what it is.
“The violence in these communities that these kids run into every day that I see, that everybody sees, we’re all kind of a part of this. We’re standing up and saying that’s not the way to do it.’’
The aim of the basketball tournament was to find kids at pivotal ages and show them they have options even when they’re hard to see. The idea sparked nine years ago with a soccer tournament for peace in response to a violent summer in 2003. In 2009, Conley brainstormed about an event during February vacation. Now the tournament is in its fourth year.
“It’s a great opportunity for the kids to participate in something we think is very positive and also get some messages that we’re trying to get across to them,’’ Conley said. “Of course, the big one is stay away from drugs, guns, and gangs.’’
Getting that message from the court system, Conley said, hopefully shows that the courts aren’t their adversary.
“We’re not here to simply prosecute people and put people in jail,’’ Conley said. “Our job is to prevent kids and young people from getting involved in lives of violence. So we’ve got plenty of cases where we’re trying to keep as many kids out of trouble as we can.’’
Conley invited several community leaders to be honorary captains, from Dr. Thea James, director of the Boston Medical Center’s Violence Intervention Advocacy Program, to Deputy Superintendent William Gross, a 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department. “True role models,’’ Conley said.
“Rare talent represents a unique gift to one person - the ability to sing, the ability to dance, the ability to play ball,’’ Conley said. “But role models are people whose entire lives are gifts to others.’’
Between games, hoops prodigy turned motivational speaker Chris Herren told his painful story of drug addiction to the crowd of teens. A small girl and a referee both came up to him after he spoke to tell him how inspiring his words were.
“That’s all I need is stuff like that,’’ Herren said. “To have that little girl come up to me and say that, to have the referee say that, that’s a win.’’
There was one twist to this year’s tournament. The teams from the different youth centers played against each other in the early games, but after the break players were mixed together, putting them in a position where they played with new faces.
“I like to think that it promotes some level of understanding that we’re all in this together, neighborhoods are artificial barriers,’’ Conley said.
Jacque Furtado, the program director for Bromley-Heath, was in full support.
“They’ll make new interactions or new friends today with someone that they’ve never met before that might live right down the street,’’ she said. “That’s the awesome thing, this is the age that they’re still workable. Too many times we focus on the problems we have, but the good of the city is so much bigger than the problems we have, but we never really focus on the good kids, the good things, and everyone involved. So I’m all about it.’’
For Rodriguez, who will graduate from Boston Day and Evening Academy in September, there was far more to the day than just the games.
“Everybody’s united, everybody’s getting along with one another because it’s for one purpose - to win - and have fun,’’ Rodriguez said. “It builds a lot of positivity.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.