While his peers hang out idle on street corners or get into mischief, 12-year-old Jernario Elrod spends his Saturdays playing sports with children from throughout Coahoma County.
For Elrod, it’s all about running around and having fun. For organizers of the weekend activities, it’s about much more – through Friars Point Youth Community Organization, adults are working to curtail violence and teach kids ages 5 to 18 from different towns to get along.
“It’s not just about giving these kids a basketball and turning them loose,” said Pamela Vance, one of the group’s mentors. “It’s about decreasing juvenile delinquency and providing children an opportunity to play together and develop relationships with people from other towns.”
The group has been in existence on and off for roughly 20 years, supported by contributions from local residents, businesses and organizations. But it got its first huge boost recently with a $5,000 grant from CURET. That money, distributed in two parts, helps purchase sports equipment and uniforms, supports group outings, and pays guest speakers to appear.
On Saturday, youth speaker Dennisa Nolan from TATU -Teens Against Tobacco Use – spoke to roughly 50 children in the Friars Point Elementary School gymnasium about the dangers of smoking.
Attentive and polite, the children from Friars Point, Lula and Coahoma answered questions about tobacco use for a chance to win prizes such as games, caps and clothing. Afterward, they jumped into an intense game of basketball.
Throughout the year, the organization offers other sports like softball, flag football, soccer and dance. It also sponsors activities, such as bike-a-thons and field trips.
The program has proved so successful over the years that children once involved in the activities have now become mentors themselves. Gemarion Nolan, who is Dennisa’s cousin, recently became a coach after having spent his youth playing alongside other children.
“Growing up, I thought this was fun, so I said, ‘Hey, let’s give back to the community and make it grow,'” said Nolan, 18. “It teaches kids to make friends with people from other communities. And when they play, it’s not about fighting, it’s about winning.”
That’s the program’s main focus – giving children the opportunity to associate with other youth in a friendly setting. Vance said that kids form their own cliques anyway, but she hopes that after having played sports with other children, those cliques won’t turn to violent gangs that fight other groups.
James Nolan, uncle to the Dennisa and Gemarion and mentor in the group, said that his goal is to bring children from Friars Point and Jonestown together for a game.
Children from both towns brawled in February at Coahoma County Junior High School, and many say that rivalry between the two towns has long existed. The youth organization hopes to change that.
“We need to teach them respect for one another,” James Nolan said. “It’s all about respect.”
Reprinted with permission from the Clarksdale Press Register.