April 2006: Reaching Out to the Unreachable


Reaching out to the unreachable; Players win over kids unaccustomed to trusting adults
29 April 2006 – Toronto Star

By Morgan Campbell

SIMCOE, ONT. – Rayshawn’s flashing those fast hands again, poking the ball from his buddy Kareem at the top of the key, then exploding toward the other hoop.

Before he came to the Sprucedale Youth Centre, the only thing quicker than Rayshawn’s hands was his temper. Anyone at the Toronto Youth Assessment Centre foolish enough to talk about his mom got flattened. That’s disrespect. And the kid who tried to punk him off for his food? Dropped for the count. You’ve got to eat, right?

Since then, 20-year-old Rayshawn has shelved his knuckle game, and now he shares a cramped basketball court with six other residents at Sprucedale, an institution for young offenders 90 minutes southwest of Toronto. He backpedals across half court and with his left hand snags a pass intended for his mentor, Toronto Argonauts defensive back Jordan Younger.

Younger’s there today with his teammate, defensive lineman Jonathan Brown. They’re two of a crew of Argos who have been visiting a group of seven Sprucedale residents every Tuesday and Thursday since late March. As part of the Argonauts Foundation’s Stop The Violence initiative, six players – Brown, Younger, Orlondo Steinauer, Chuck Winters, Clifford Ivory and Michael Fletcher – agreed to spend a month and a half working with seven teens serving time at Sprucedale.

Their crimes range from breaching probation, to robbery, to murder. Some will leave Sprucedale in a few weeks, while others will serve up to two more years. The Youth Criminal Justice Act protects their identities, so the teens used pseudonyms for this story.

And they’re part of a unique pilot project. Funded by the federal Department of Justice, and run by the Argos and the Ministry of Child and Youth Services, it’s the only program in the world in which pro athletes enter a jail to work with at-risk kids, the Argos say.

Everyone involved with the program says the teens have matured more in six weeks with the Argos than they would have in a year on their own. The players say the teens just needed someone to relate to, someone to emulate, and someone to treat them as human beings.

The Grey Cup rings broke down a few barriers, too.

“To say that our being pro athletes doesn’t have an impact, we’d be kidding ourselves,” Steinauer said. “But after we’re in there, the pro athlete thing goes away. My best tools were my ears and my presence.”


Five kilometres north of Lake Erie, between a warehouse and a farmer’s field, the Sprucedale Youth Centre and Secondary School houses about 65 young offenders in a two-story beige brick building. Residents each have their own dormitory rooms, and spend their days taking classes for high school credit.

Roughly half of Sprucedale’s residents come from the GTA, which was important to Toronto Police Constable Andria Cowan. She’s an Argonauts Foundation board member, and she came up with the mentorship idea in January. Her plan was for the players and the teens to build relationships that will last long after the teens leave Sprucedale.

“If they were from Windsor and they went back to Windsor, we’d have no way to support them,” she said.

Cowan and the Argos selected six players who enjoyed community service, and whose experiences would help them relate to troubled teens. All six would make the initial visit on March 27. After that, two Argos would visit the jail every Tuesday and Thursday until May 4. They would spend about two hours with teens, sometimes playing sports, sometimes lifting weights, but every session had a similar plan: to listen, counsel, encourage, challenge and care.

Meanwhile, Sprucedale deputy superintendent Melanie Ferdinand chose boys for the program, with help from Rayshawn, a Regent Park native with skin beige as Sprucedale’s bricks, and a build just as solid. She gave him the task because she wanted to build on the leadership skills he had already shown.

Their goal was to find guys social enough to function in a group, and mature enough to learn to trust.

“I don’t care about your charges, if you were immature I wasn’t going to pick you,” said Rayshawn, who’ll finish his three-year sentence in July. “Even if I don’t like you, I’ll pick you if I knew you were going to participate properly.”

Entering the program the players had all received classroom training, but, Brown figured the last thing the teens needed was another specialist to analyze their faults. Guys like Ryan, Rayshawn, Kareem and Omar had already seen a parade of what they call “PhD motherf—-s” – psychologists with degrees and diplomas but no experience on the street. They needed someone who would listen and not judge. They needed people they could relate to. They needed someone real.

“You don’t come to 16- and 17-year-olds with a bunch of book stuff,” Brown said. “So we incorporated a lot of street knowledge.”

This group of Argos had plenty, and when the project launched on March 27, it used it to win over a group of kids unaccustomed to trusting adults.

They had seen poverty. Winters grew up in the Herman Garden Projects, 7-Mile and Evergreen, northwest Detroit, a place that makes Regent Park look like Rosedale. In Seattle, Steinauer had lived on his own since he was 15, and survived with help from friends and food banks.

They also knew pain. Winters’ brother died in a drive-by shooting seven years ago. At 11, Brown buried his own brother, James Norwood, shot in the head and shoulder over some cocaine and heroin.

And they knew the penal system. Right now Winters has a cousin locked up for life in Michigan. As a teenager Fletcher, who grew up in Compton, Calif., served two stints in juvenile hall – one for stealing a car and one for a gang fight.

“We knew we could tell our stories and these guys would understand where we were coming from and we could possibly strike a chord with them,” Winters said.

Some kids took a while to warm up, but the Argos had 18-year-old Kareem the second they shared their stories.

“When I knew where they were coming from I just felt the realness,” he said. “When it was my time to talk I just put everything on the table. Just to know that they were in our situation and they came out successful in life gives us motivation to know we can be successful too.”

“Before, I didn’t want to hear nothing from no one because they haven’t experienced what I’ve experienced,” Rayshawn said. “But real recognizes real.

For Brown, the program’s payoff came during his third session, when the last of the teens finally dropped their guard and talked about how they wound up at Sprucedale, and showed remorse for the people they had hurt.

“These guys had never admitted they messed up,” Brown said. “Just to get them to say, ‘I messed up. I want to get better,’ that’s the first step. It’s an accomplishment in itself.”

Younger’s pivotal moment was a touch football game, when he first saw the teens laugh.

“You realize they want the same things out of life that we want,” Younger said. “They want to be happy and have fun. You can see all that in a little game of touch football.”

The games also let the players provide the teens with encouragement, self-esteem and a sense of family. During Tuesday’s basketball game, players launched shots from all angles. Some went in, some missed by metres, but nobody criticized.

“I’m telling you, shoot,” Younger told Kareem after his three-pointer clanged off the rim. “It will drop.”

And they saved the biggest praise for nice passes, like the one Rayshawn fed to Brown for a layup.

Ferdinand beamed. She doesn’t often see teamwork and encouragement in this gym.

“Historically our players are all about themselves and they showboat,” she said. “(When they pass) you’re witnessing the program in action.”

But the teens say the program had its deepest effect off the court, inside the minds of the kids involved.

Omar says the Argos have cooled the anger that once burned within him. Now he envisions himself earning a college diploma when he leaves Sprucedale, and eventually running his own restaurant.

At first Kareem couldn’t see past his own self-pity at being locked up. Now he plans on finishing high school, re-joining his basketball team and coaching younger kids.

“The players have gotten to places with these kids that staff has not,” Ferdinand said. “This is the most powerful and intense program I’ve experienced in 21 years of working with high-risk kids.”

Rayshawn, father of a 2-year-old boy, rhymes off a list of skills he has sharpened at Sprucedale: barbering, bricklaying, drywalling, landscaping. Now he has the confidence to put them to work when he leaves in July.

“I want my son to say, ‘I want to be like Dad,'” he said. “The Argos have helped me see that.”

But Rayshawn knows it won’t be easy. Most kids in the program can’t count on friends and family to ease their transition into the community.

Before the Argos arrived, Ryan, a skinny 17-year-old from Keele and Finch, had had only one visitor in the 18 months he had spent in jail. Rayshawn had two visitors in three years. The Argos, though, have pledged to continue the visits throughout the season, even if the federal government decides not to renew the grant. And next week Sprucedale staff will meet with the teens to figure out how best to help the ones, like Rayshawn, scheduled for release soon.

“Who’s out there for me? I’m out there for me,” Rayshawn says. “You can’t depend on anyone else to make sure you don’t come back here. It’s all about what you want in life, and I want a change. I’m trying to roll with a positive group.

“I’m in the middle of the hill. Everyone I knew before is at the bottom of the hill, looking up at me. I’m trying to reach to the top, and the Argos are going to help me do that.”

Copyright ©2006 Toronto Star
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