photos by Stephen Piscura
"Kids down here look just like shadows..." --Bruce Springstein
Year 2005 (for more recent updates, see bottom of page)
We intentionally moved to a rough, hardscrabble neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio (the poorest city in the country at the time) to be: “part of the solution.” Many kids down here spend their days trying to dodge hunger, drugs and bullets. What’s more, they are often coming home to empty places where both parents are working multiple, minimum wage jobs to stay afloat. Or the kids are coming home to parents addicted to alcohol, to drugs…
One of the few outlets many kids down here have is sports.
And within these sports venues, the kids are desperate for positive role models to mentor them, encourage them, and just be there for them for that matter.
My wife Liz and I coached youth sports teams at the Michael J. Zone Recreation Center. One year we coached baseball. At the end of the first practice, I told the kids to make sure they went home and practiced on their own as well.
A group of three friends from the team approached me after we broke up that day. One of the boys then said in a shy, almost inaudible tone: “Can we borrow a ball?”
Then there was gymnastics.
Liz used to coach gymnastics in New Zealand and would sometimes help out with a neighborhood gymnastic class at St. Paul’s Community Church. St. Paul’s, a small church, is highly creative when it comes to space management. It has an old gym that is filled with neighborhood kids and adults most nights. And it has a sanctuary with folding chairs.
During the week, the chairs come out and mats go down for gymnastics, for karate… Pastor Doug Horner explained that these neighborhood latch-key kids needed as many “safe places” to go at night as possible -- in a neighborhood that could be awfully dangerous.
One evening I was playing football with some boys behind the Michael Zone Center when our Sarah came running out of the gym, screaming: “DAD, DAD, HURRY! SOMEONE’S BEEN SHOT!”
It was a 14-year-old boy.
He’d gotten caught in the crossfire between neighborhood gangs. In shock, and with a bullet hole in his leg, the youth had run several blocks to the center -- where he collapsed in a pool of blood on the gym floor.
The boy, thankfully, lived.
Each day in America, some kids are not as lucky. In fact, eight youth die each day from gun violence in our cities now. A fatality rate much higher than the American soldier fatality rate in Iraq and Afghanistan -- combined.
We can’t keep turning our backs to the kids down here in these “war zones.” We can’t let this go on.
And as U.S. President, I wouldn’t.
*Some of the best memories for our Jonathan growing up near Cleveland’s inner
city was the time he spent at the local Rec. Center. (See above.) He was asked to
write a poem for a class recently that revolved around “flashback.” This is what
he ‘flashbacked’ too.
The Michael J. Zone Center
by Jonathan Schriner
Cleveland is where I grew up
I spent much time playing sports at a local rec center
I met many friends there
It became the center of my world
Many memories we would share
All the talented players there
All taught me many things
Like playing with a special flair.
My friends and I would spend all day doing many different things
Playing basketball, flag football, and sometimes we would even try racquetball
Playing basketball was fun until one team became too good
Dominating the court like kings
And we couldn't play with the older players
Because, well, we were too short
And we didn't actually play racquetball
It was more like hitting it as hard as we could
Off the wall and dodging it
This, however, we basically made into a sport.
The staff was nice and they joined in the games
They gave pointers to us kids
And wouldn't get angry unless…
Someone did something the center forbids.
Occasionally fights would break out,
Usually because everyone was super competitive.
Customarily it was settled quickly with a game
To determine the winner amidst a crowd of witnesses
I made many memories at the Michael J Zone Center that I won't ever forget
The times we shed our blood, sweat and tears for sports and friends
We poured everything we had into all we did so we had no regret
I miss all the people there, they welcomed me warmly and took me under their wing
They helped me grow and become a better person
I will never forget the Michael J Zone Center
Urban Youth (part 2)
In 2016, we moved to Steubenville, Ohio (pop. 18,659). It is an old Rust Belt town with more than a few hardscrabble areas and a downtown where three-fourths of the storefronts are vacant. It’s rough. So rough, in fact, that the other night one teenager was shot to death and another two were taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds after two gangs squared off two short blocks south of our home.
A few nights later, concerned town people came together for a meeting on the second floor of the Urban Underground building downtown. I went. The Urban Underground is a drop-in place for teens in tough situations down here. In fact, the teenager who had been killed in the gun battle had been at the Urban Underground earlier in the day.
The director (see photo) said the answer to this violence is prayer, and the community reaching out to help these kids more. [I had met with the director a couple weeks prior, and he explained volunteers from all walks of life come down to help: mentor these kids; help them with food, clothing; and in some cases, just talk to them.]
To that end, my son Jonathan and I have started going down to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in the heart of some pretty depressed housing and projects on the city’s near Westside. We’ve been in some basketball games there (there’s an old indoor gym), primarily with some younger boys. Some of whom, it’s probably a safe bet, have it tough at home. And need more adults to talk to.
What’s more, I noticed (you couldn’t help but notice) that things at the center were a bit run down. The outdoor basketball backboards were quite rusty, the outdoor picnic table paint had almost all peeled off, part of the front of the building needed painting…
All right up the alley for, well: “Joe the Painter.” So I’ve just started into some of it, thanks, in part, to a guy I once met in Holgate, Ohio (pop. 1,109). The day we arrived in Holgate, he was painting the downtown rather rusty light poles. He didn’t look like he was with a city crew. He had on some old funky shorts, an old t-shirt… I asked.
He told me, no, he didn’t work for anyone. He was doing this as a private citizen. He said he didn’t even ask anybody, or anything. Just started painting with a light blue – his favorite color. In other words, he saw a need and stepped up.
John F Kennedy once famously said: “It’s not what your country can do for you, but rather it’s what you can do for your country.”