By Ameesha Felton
RICHMOND, Va. — Retired NBA player, Johnny Newman said as a teenager he did not think refereeing little league basketball at a neighborhood YMCA would be the catalyst for his success. The basketball veteran and University of Richmond graduate had a 16 season career (1986-2002) in the NBA, playing for several teams including, the Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks and Milwaukee Bucks, among others.
Newman credits a big part of his success to the YMCA in his hometown of Danville, Virginia, advocating that mentoring environments similar to the YMCA are vital to all communities, especially in inner-cities. Local recreational centers are often safe havens for children in urban or at-risk communities, aiding students with educational resources and mentoring support.
Richmond school district’s graduation rate is projected to drop by 12 percent in 2012, which is why Drew Klammer, Sr. Program Director for YMCA Greater Richmond is concerned about the organization’s recent decline in funding, advocating that children and teens need somewhere to go that provides an outlet and educational resources.
“The need for financial assistance dollars across the YMCA’s in Greater Richmond has drastically increased, while the amount (donations) that is being given out has greatly decreased,” said Klammer.
According to Klammer, 95 percent of the YMCA’s funding for the financial assistance program comes directly from private donors. Thus, when donations fall, meeting the growing need for assistance can become a challenge. Greater Richmond YMCA provides financial assistance to nearly 50,000 recipients in the Richmond area, which shows the need is evident.
“Everyday of the year kids try to sneak in all of our facilities because obviously they don’t want to be out running the streets, maybe they want to play basketball, maybe they want to swim because their friend is a member,” said Klammer.
Despite financial issues, Klammer said the YMCA doesn’t turn anyone away.
“We’d much rather have them in a sport, you know playing in a league that’s governed by somebody that we know the values in the league are the proper values being taught to youth,” said Klammer.
Newman’s story mirrors one of the many children that come to community centers looking for an opportunity. As a sophomore in high school, Newman recalls spending many afternoons on the basketball court.
“Playing ball on the streets of Danville I’ve seen a lot of the bad things, I’ve seen a lot of good things and mediocre things go on outside (in the community) but it taught me how to survive, compete and fight,” said Newman.
Newman began to notice his excelling talent in basketball, but could not turn to home for support.
“My dad was a workaholic, he didn’t believe in sports,” said Newman adding that instead, his father placed importance on practicality and hard work.
Newman began looking for a more structured environment to nurture and hone his skills. He turned to his local YMCA, but with empty pockets.
“I used to slip into the YMCA,” he guiltily smiled. Newman did not have a membership.
After spotting Newman sneak through the doors several times, a staff member offered him a deal.
“I’ll never forget a lady name Marsha at the YMCA, she said, ‘John I will give you a membership if you come in and referee YBA basketball for the little kids,'” recalled Newman who agreed.
While volunteering local coaches and staff members began to notice his dedication and budding talent.
“There were coaches that took me in, saw that I had potential with sports and they would volunteer with me, take me in, open up the gym, take me on trips,” said Newman.
What started out as a bartering system for Newman to pay for his membership, became a life long commitment.
“I’ve been doing basketball camps since I was a 10th grader in high school, the way I was able to do that, I started with the YMCA,” said Newman.
Newman still coaches today, holding the “Johnny Newman” basketball camp each summer in Henrico County. Neighborhood community centers are not only important to children but also parents.
Charell McMurry, lives in Randolph community in Richmond with her two teenagers daughters. McMurry said with her busy work schedule, the accessibility of local community centers give her ease of mind.
“I work a lot, and because they’re teenagers, I’ve always had them involved in the Boys and Girls Club and Randolph community center, just because it’s a safe haven, and it also gives them something to do, something to look forward to,” said McMurry.
Charmeya, who is McMurry’s 14-year-old daughter can has many reasons why the local Boys and Girls Club is one of her favorite spots.
“It’s a place where I can be myself, it’s like really a safe haven for me, my friends are there, and they have counselors there I can talk to if I’m having a problem or if I don’t feel comfortable talking to my mom, plus, there are good resources there, computers so I can do my homework,” said Charmeya.
McMurry’s youngest daughter, 12-year-old Charmoni said she doesn’t mind spending her time at the BGCA.
“I go everyday, all days of the week, because during the summer there isn’t much to do and during the school year after I finish my homework there’s really nothing to do,” said Charmoni.
The McMurry family said their lives are directly impacted by community centers, like Newman and possibly a number of families throughout the United States.
The testimonials of Charmeya and Charmoni McMurry may not be as grand Johnny Newman’s success story but all share the same message. Neighborhood community centers are more than just a place for children to play, but also a place where potential is nurtured and life skills are taught.
“I still have friends now, that I not only let into the gym when I probably wasn’t supposed to, that graduated from USC, accounting majors, you know have went on to continue to do well. Everywhere I go, I bump into a kid or two that’s grown now and says ‘Mr. Newman I went to your basketball camp,'” said Newman.
Newman said he doesn’t care about accolades, instead his reward comes from seeing former students grow up to be successful individuals.
“In my camp, I tell kids I want to be in my rocking chair reading the newspaper and seeing your name, not in the most wanted section, but in you know ‘he’s a leader of this, he just signed a new contract, or he got this job, you know those are the things that I want to hear that are gratifying to me,'” said Newman.
Virginia School Districts: This data visualization tool compares the projected number of graduates for the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school years.
Data Source: Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service