During the school year, the main quad is full of students on their way to and from class. But during the summer, the quad gets taken over by an entirely different crowd—elementary schoolers.
Every summer, roughly 600 children come to CWRU each day to participate in the National Youth Sports Program (NYSP) with the goal of shaping their futures for the better. NYSP is a nationally-recognized five-week summer program for socioeconomically disadvantaged children.
Since its inception in Cleveland in 1970, NYSP has garnered national recognition as a model program, and it has been the inspiration for a similar program across the world in Queensland, Australia. Despite celebrating its 44th year on campus this summer, the camp remainsrelatively unknown to the CWRU community.
During the NYSP program, the quad transforms into a “train station,” as the campers call it, where hundreds of children flood its footpaths in a spectacle of carefully crafted pandemonium. The children travel to lecture halls, Veale spaces and residence halls, where they learn about personal health, fitness, nutrition, math, science, history, social justice, art appreciation and modern dance.
When the NYSP students and staff take over the quad, it starts to resemble an elaborate traveling circus. With 532 registered campers and 64 staff members and volunteers for 2014, the staff says the program runs on the vitality of ordered chaos. Staff members claim their fuel for success is the children; their inspiration is each other.
One of the most recognizable staff members goes by the nickname Moses. Marvin Chappell, a Cleveland State University grad, stands outside of Leutner greeting campers as they get ready to eat lunch. His 6-foot 4-inch stature and his large smile are accompanied by the polished, engraved staff which earned him his nickname.
While he always greets campers with a smile, his life hasn’t always been so carefree. About five years ago, Chappell suffered a massive brain stroke which left him in a coma for over 80 days. When he woke up, he had to relearn the most basic life skills, like eating and walking.
“[NYSP] is my first attempt at work since 2009,” said Chappell, who used to work for a social service agency, specializing in foster care. “I just get so much joy working with these kids.”
“Right now, I’m so grateful for this opportunity to work. I feel loved and useful,” added Chappell, who hopes to one day return to school and get a master’s degree in social work.
Moses is joined on staff by a number of others, each as committed as he is to helping and educating the campers. The staffers, led by program director Dennis “Coach” Harris, a former Ohio State University football player, are all committed to doing their best to make the summer a valuable and fun experience for the campers.
One staffer, who goes by the nickname Motion, is Damon Rucker, captain of the Cleveland Cavaliers Scream Team and Dunk Team member. Rucker teaches NYSP campers dance and positive self-expression.
“Life is like a sample platter at a restaurant,” he said. “You can try it all and not know what you’ll fall in love with. I fell in love with helping kids.”
Lori Urogdy Eiler, another staffer, also fell in love with helping kids. She became passionate about empowering young people during college, channeling that fervor into a 35 year teaching career at Shaw High School in East Cleveland. She was even awarded Ohio teacher of the year in 1991.
Urogdy Eiler conducts mock trials that teach social justice at NYSP. The trials, which cover fictional subjects like The Bears v. Gold E. Locks, teach the children about the value of what she simply calls “citizenship.”
She uses a simple sports analogy to explain her role to the kids. “Without rules on the basketball court, you’d foul out quickly,” she said. “Society is like that; without law, you foul out quickly. I don’t want to see them foul out of society.”
Even former campers are eager to join the staff. Chanelle Brown, now a nutrition student at the University of Dayton, started as a camper at age 10 before joining the staff at age 18. She says that her dedication to the camp stems from, “the people. Seeing the kids interact with one another and watching them grow up is invaluable.”
Current CWRU students are also involved with the program. Many students at the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing use the camp as a way of filling their global health practicum requirement for their senior capstone.
“Many things may seem disorganized and not everything goes to plan, so I’ve learned to be flexible,” said nursing student Rachel Wolf.
“Hey, JimBob, Baby Girl, get back in line!” program director Harris calls out to two of the students waiting to perform in the NYSP CWRU talent show. It is Thursday, July 10, 7 pm.
From renditions of Beyonce’s “Pretty Hurts” and The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly,” to dancing and original poetry, the children of NYSP shocked those in attendance with their perfect combination of raw emotion and innocent excitement.
Emcee Cynthia Barnes Booker, a two-time Emmy Award-winning reporter involved with the program, harnessed the vibrancy of the kids with encouragement and humor.
As the night progressed some acts stood out more than others, like a 17-year-old Shaw High School student whose guitar playing could have been a solo off of a 1970s Parliament-Funkadelic album delivered alongside the late Eddie Hazel. Or another young man’s popping and floating style of dance performed to a medley of dubstep tunes. Or a young girl’s original poem asserting her worth in the face of struggle.
But competition wasn’t the point of the evening, love and celebration were. The plethora of expressions that arrested each person’s face after each performance was captivating, and the unofficial staff motto “for the kids” was played out in real time. That night, NYSP fulfilled its mission to make a difference.
A group of alumnae who call themselves the “friends of NYSP” sat front and center at the event, flanked at one end by a member of the Cleveland City Council and at the other by Chairman of CWRU’s Board of Trustees, Charles Fowler and his wife Char.
Fowler was recognized by Coach Harris and shared a few words on stage before Coach made one more special announcement. An international delegation of 11 African nations and Haiti was coming to Cleveland and each delegate wanted to learn about NYSP as a part of the agenda. The program was making a difference around the world, affirming Coach’s philosophy, “same world, same problems.”
Pictures of Harris’ wife, daughter and son litter his office. He also has snapshots of himself with film director Spike Lee, dignitaries including City of Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, as well as newspaper clippings on everything from Ohio State football to Case track and field to NYSP.
He is the ringleader that makes this circus run.
Coach grew up in the Harvard-Lee neighborhood of Cleveland. When he graduated from John F. Kennedy High School he enrolled at Ohio State University, where from 1977-79 he played football as a walk-on for the legendary Woody Hayes. He found his way back to Cleveland after graduating and was eventually hired at CWRU to coach football and track and field. In 1996, he took over running NYSP.
Coach, like many of his former teammates, was presented with opportunities to enter the world of commercialized sports, but he chose not to follow that path. For him, sports were just the catalyst to expression.
“I battle with myself ‘why?’ all the time,” he said. “But I’ll never forget my parents telling me, you are a social servant, you have to give back. My father was drafted to fight in World War II. He had to serve, he had no choice. But he loved people. He was at the Battle of the Bulge and he still talked about the French, the Italians, and the Germans with affection.
“I remember my mother coming to visit the program every year. She would always ask me, ‘Are you still working with the kids?’ How could I stop? I love people, I love kids, and I just want to give them the right start. So I constantly ask myself why, but then I think about my life.
“How many people have seen Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] speak twice? People talk about the dream all the time, I’ve seen it, heard it, and I try to live it. And people are the dream. Before words like integration, inclusion, and diversity, my parents preached to me the Golden Rule. I never saw all the racism, people are people and I love them all. Those memories and my wife, Vanessa, are where I get my energy and drive.”
When he finished speaking, Coach nodded slightly. His eyes twinkled with reserved animation, and he wore a strained smile that contained both the pain of a man who wants to do more and the wisdom of a man who knows he can only do so much.
“I want to give kids the best program because they deserve it,” he continued. “I want these kids to learn the soft skills like respect, gratitude and compassion so they can learn the hard skills like math, science and writing.”
Coach has made NYSP’s primary sports component a mere hook to educate campers, just like he personally made sports a way to institute change in the world. Despite sports programs losing their national funding in 2006, Coach has kept the program running strong with partnerships with individual donors, corporations, and city support.
“My theme in life is once you stop learning you stop living. CWRU is a top research university in the country. I’m so grateful that they take us back each year and allow us to use their resources.”
And those resources haven’t gone to waste, both here and abroad. Through a friendship between staff members and an Australian woman named Trevelyn Brady, the program became the model for Queensland, Australia’s thriving Indigenous Youth Sports Program. For the fourth time in 12 years, Brady was back visiting the Cleveland program this summer, an immensely inspiring gesture to all involved with NYSP.
Coach is clearly indebted to many individuals and organizations apart from his staff. He said words couldn’t do his executive staff justice, and he could only arrange few words to express his gratitude to the City of Cleveland and Mayor Frank Jackson, as well as members of the Cleveland City Council for the tremendous help NYSP receives from them.
“U.S. Representative Louis Stokes began NYSP in Cleveland, so it’s always been a concern of public officials,” Coach said. “When I met [Stokes] I realized the Dennis Harris story is not important. It’s nothing more than a continuation of the work men like him started.”
Coach was nodding slightly again. His eyes were shining and his lips were curling, but when he opened his mouth this time, he said assuredly, “I do it for the people. People are life.”