It’s already warm outside at 85 degrees on a breezeless summer evening in Springfield, but inside the gym at the Boys and Girls Club, it seems even hotter. The gym, sans air conditioning, is full of high school boys in colorful shoes, sprinting back and forth in an energetic game of full court basketball.
Family and friends cheer them on from the stands, and across the court, Michael Phelon is watching with a smile on his face. For him, this is more than a mere game; it’s a journey.
Phelon is branch director at the Boys and Girls Club of Central Illinois, and he also runs The Outlet, a faith-based outreach organization aimed at providing young men with a positive influence. Through this group, Phelon has turned what started out as simple open gym sessions into a program called Hoop Journey, which uses basketball as a vehicle for life training.
“Every kid has a choice to either take the good path or the bad path,” Phelon said. “If we can give these guys enough tools to make the right decisions at a young age, they are better able to stay on the right track. If we wait too long, we become less effective. When they’re young and impressionable, that’s when we can have an impact.”
Started about five years ago, Hoop Journey is at its core a basketball tournament. But for the boys who want to participate, there’s a catch: each night of basketball is accompanied by life skill workshops, and if you don’t come to the workshop, you don’t play ball.
Phelon says the program started as something for the boys to do, but he and his staff soon realized they had a captive audience which needed positive role models.
“I see a lot of young men with a lot of hope and potential, but not a lot of direction,” he said. “My thing is, I think God has given everybody a gift, and I think we’re supposed to give it back out. I think one of my gifts is being able to talk to young men and seeing the better in them, when maybe even their parents don’t see it, all the kids that don’t have fathers or may not have a mom at home. … Any kind of sports is going to draw kids, so we thought, ‘Let’s add some structure; let’s add some walls to this while we have their attention.’ ”
Reaching about 90 high school boys and about 50 middle school boys each week during the summer, Phelon’s program offers a meal, basketball training and inspirational messages from men in the community. Phelon says the program’s workshops include lessons on getting and keeping a job, banking basics, how to build good credit and other important skills. The Boys and Girls Club has partnered with 4H, the Springfield Urban League, CeaseFire Springfield and other groups, Phelon says. He adds that his program wouldn’t be possible without those partnerships.
“A lot of times, people on the east side are not locking arms, or at least you don’t really see that in the paper,” he said. “But it’s not just the Boys and Girls Club. It’s four or five organizations that are making this work. I just couldn’t do it alone.”
Larry Hemingway Sr., director of CeaseFire Springfield and one of Phelon’s helpers in The Outlet, says the program gives the boys someone to look up to and someone to whom they are accountable.
“The youth see some of the same faces in all of these different arenas, and it’s like, ‘Wow, didn’t I see you at the Boys and Girls Club?’ ” he said. “It paints a bigger picture to let the youth know that it’s not just when you’re in school. You want to keep that same behavior, not just in one arena, but all throughout your life. If I see you at the supermarket, I’m expecting that. At the end of the day, it’s about building a relationship with these youth. One of my mentors always says a person doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Phelon says volunteers and donations are always welcome, but one of the program’s primary needs is mentors willing to share their own journeys with the boys and teach them how to be men.
“A lot of times, we think our kids aren’t listening or paying attention, but they want somebody to give them instructions,” Phelon said. “They want an adult to be in their lives, but they don’t have anybody around.”
For more information, visit www.theoutletillinois.org.
Contact Patrick Yeagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.