‘John on Helping the Youth’ by Danny Harris

Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. In September, he launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. Every day, People’s District presents a different Washingtonian sharing his or her insights on everything from Go Go music to homelessness to fashion to politics. You can read his previous columns here.

“Today was just another sad day for our community. Murder of any kind is so senseless, but it is especially hard when it is a young person. I knew the young gentleman who was killed on U Street. He used to come around the Kalorama Recreation Center, where I work, all of the time to play basketball and hang out. His name was Jamal Coates, but people called him ‘Big Pun.’ I always knew him as a decent and respectful young man. Now, he is just another kid who died too young and will never get a chance to marry or have grandchildren. His legacy ended right there on the street. It is so sad.

“For 39 years, I have been working with kids all over this city through the Parks and Recreation Department. When I was a child, I was a trouble maker, but a friend introduced me to my neighborhood recreation center. The people there really saved me and turned my life around. At the time, I didn’t know that I had it inside of me to help others and be a leader, but the people there saw it in me. They helped me to realize my potential and here I am, 39 years later, still holding on and doing what I can to help our youth.

“See, I can relate to these kids because I’ve been there. I grew up in a single-parent household, as one of 13 children. I was the first to go to college, and I have worked hard all of my life and have been rewarded. I am proud to say that I won the Cafritz award in 2006 as a distinguished D.C. employee. No matter how good you are, though, these streets are some of the toughest competition there is.

Continues after the jump.

“During my service here, I have been to more than my share of funerals. There was one period when I wouldn’t ever hang my black suit in the closet because I was going so often. One day, I just got so tired of all of the dying and couldn’t take it any more. I decided to do everything in my power to grab every kid that I could and make them understand that life is a precious gift. Ever since then, I try my best to make sure that I touch someone’s life every day. Sometimes, I can’t help because someone is too far gone, but I have learned to accept it. My wife tells me that I can’t save them all, but it is just tragic to watch kids head on a crash course with death.

“We now live in a time where kids are getting violent earlier and many of them see no hope in life. I think a lot of that has to do with the media and our kids lacking faith. Now, kids can access anything and everything on the computer. Cartoons and video games are all about sex and violence and profanity. This is what our kids learn. Sadly, many of them don’t learn anything else. How do we expect these kids to stand a chance to make choices about right-and-wrong when the media shows them how sexy violence is? Most kids don’t realize that at the end of a gangster movie, the actor goes home with fat pockets and lives another day. These gangster games that kids play on the streets usually end in a coffin.

“I fight so hard for these kids and try and encourage them to resist the media and to find faith in something. A spiritual background is the greatest thing that you can have. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it grounds you and let’s you believe in something. Many kids don’t want to believe in anything. They see their parents as achieving nothing in life and think they are going to be the same. I tell them that they can be the one to flip the script. They can be the lawyers and doctors. They just need to have faith and work hard. Some believe me and others don’t. The stories that you don’t hear in the press are the kids who come to me and say, thank you, Mr. Borges, I was getting ready to do some stupid stuff, but I changed my mind when I thought about what you said.

“These are the kids who give me hope. I am also inspired by the history of our property. Kalorama Park used to be the John Little estate in the 19th Century, which housed slaves. I am pretty sure that back then, they never would have thought that the same plantation would one day be a home to one of the most diverse recreation centers in the city. We get people of all kinds here who love recreation and leisure. Seeing what happens here, I know that there will be a day when all of this foolishness and violence stops. I just hope and pray that it will happen in my lifetime.”

The Kalorama Recreational Center is located at 1875 Columbia Road NW.

16 Comment

  • “The stories that you don’t hear in the press are the kids who come to me and say, thank you, Mr. Borges, I was getting ready to do some stupid stuff, but I changed my mind when I thought about what you said.”

    Can we get some of these stories on PoP? I think we could all use a reminder that stereotypes might describe some, but not all, members of a group.

  • We need more people like this and more city funding for people like this to help DC’s kids to get on the right path.

  • Man, PoP, you’ve got me crying in my office! Awesome post. Gives me a glimmer of hope during these dark days.

    In a recent project I’ve been involved with regarding social equity issues in our region, one of the experts I interviewed said that “many of the kids in our city don’t expect to live past 20.” Certainly shows in their brazen actions of late. The media certainly doesn’t help. Nice to know that John does! Keep it up young man! We’re praying for your dreams to come true….

  • One point that I disagree with is that things haven’t changed all that much in the OP’s lifetime. In some ways they’ve even gotten better. It’s not kids ‘these days’ because this was all happening 30 years ago in some of the same neighborhoods. It’s an entirely new generation of kids falling into the same trap their parents’ generation fell into. It’s almost farcical to hear the complaints, the accusations and the explanations today (on all sides of the same issues), because you can cut and paste them from 20-30 year ago. 30 years of hand wringing and dithering.

    It isn’t computers, because no one had a computer in ’86 or ’92 and people were killing each other at much higher rates. Maybe it’s movies and music; I’m sure they contribute, but there are so many kids around the world that watch our movies and are not moved to a life of extreme violence and killing. Some of it is lack of opportunity, but folks around the world would laugh you off the block if they looked at the resources available in DC that are squandered.

    There are a lot of people trying to help the situation in 1’s and 2’s, but there are also a lot of people afraid of changing the game too much and quite a few taking advantage of the existing status quo. It’s exhausting to provide for your own family and try to keep your own career moving forward before you even add trying to volunteer or mentor. If everyone took 1 hour a week, could we fix the problem? I’m not really sure we could. Maybe, but I’m not sure. On the other hand, we have folks who get paid to be this sort of mentor –teachers, pastors, counselors, coaches. They haven’t been making a dent in the problem. Is it an insurmountable problem? Are they insufficiently equipped? Are they just too tired to try anymore? That is one question that this city needs to ask itself.

    In DC, we have a cultural acceptance of violence throughout the entire city. We accept a certain level of violence as just the way life is. There’s always an explanation for it, but we accept that explanation and go on with our lives. One thing that I’ve seen change in 30 years is that fewer people are accepting the explanations from the City Council, the police, the teachers, –the institutions– that accept the level of violence and finger point at the other parties. It’s a good change and I hope it continues.

    • What a great story! And, believe it or not, many other centers also have great people, including Mr. Hart and a number of volunteers at Raymond Recreation Center. I also like the reply from Ragged Dog. I urge everybody to read the book Whatever It Takes and to poke around the Harlem Children’s Zone website.

  • Love Mr. Borges. He fights the good fight, doesn’t put up with any crap and dishes out a lot of love and understanding.

  • Great story. Thanks for sharing.

  • It’s great to see examples of people willing to contribute their time mentoring kids in this city (as well as a People’s District profile that doesn’t perpetuate stereotypes some may have of government employees). Our city should have more guys like John – it was good to hear his work hasn’t gone unrecognized.

    It’s also good that the recreation centers (like the Boys & Girls clubs) are hanging in there despite tough times. With such high rates of child poverty these days, they are certainly needed.

  • The best thing we can do as a city (and a nation) is break the cycle once and for all and stop young, single girls from getting pregnant too soon. I’d rather pay for birth control on demand for anyone over 13 years old than hopelessly try to pick up the un-fixable pieces 16 years later.

    Mentoring is a feel-good idea that doesn’t really solve the problem. Their ain’t enough Mr. Borges in the universe to effectively raise other people’s already damaged kids. People who talk a lot of shit about mentoring have (a) likely never done it themselves; and (b) don’t have kids of their own and therefor have NO CONCEPT of the time and effort it takes to raise one.

    I’m happy that some of my taxes go to fund rec centers and other programs. I’m happy to spend more. But “programs” and “mentoring” are no match for the endemic dysfunction parentless no-hopers. The results are on display every time you walk the streets of this town.

    • Totally agree. The problem occurs not just here but in other cities. My friend has been mentoring in Los Angeles and complains that it sometimes seems hopeless. Her last mentee just wanted to be taken to McDonald’s. She said she wanted to go to college but made none of the effort it takes to get there despite a lot of encouragement.

  • Thank you for sharing, and thank you Mr. Borges. This is a great story.

  • @ Anonymous 1:13

    Mentoring is one of the only solutions to break the cycle.
    There has been a lot of research that proves the effectiveness of mentoring. I also agree with David to read about Harlem Children’s Zone- “Whatever it Takes”. I can also speak from personal experience that mentoring is something that we should all care about. My mother started a mentoring program when I was a little child and I grew up watching peoples lives changed because someone believed in them and stopped their busy lives to show someone else a better way. Now many of her original kids are teachers who have gone back to their neighborhoods to give back. My parents actually ended up adopting one of the kids they mentored after his mother was murdered. He is now in collage on a full scholarship and plans to go to medical school.

    I now run a program in Park View working with at-risk kids. I understand every child can not be saved, but a lot of them can! Every child has value and just because I can’t save every last one of them, doesn’t mean I give up on the rest. I encourage anyone who cares about this city and the youth in it to get involved in these children’s lives. You will be surprised how much of a difference you can make!

    If anyone is interested in getting involved with the youth in Park View we have an after-school program M-F, 3-6pm. We also have a Saturday program from 11-4 through DC Cares. Our Saturday program offers guitar lessons, yoga, art, and this Saturday we are doing a Mad Science theme! We meet at Park View Rec Center in the “Little House” at Princeton and Warder. You can email me with any questions at [email protected].

    • You know, I was thinking of you through this entire thread. You do such amazing work with those kids, when nobody else wants to, and it is clear that you make a difference in their lives.

  • Way to make a difference Ang! I would love to volunteer except for the full time job and the two little toddlers hanging on my leg on Saturdays myself. Dang. Shoulda done more of this before I procreated, like a p.p. said, it takes a lot of time to raise kids.

  • @ 6:35
    Thanks. I totally understand that people have busy lives and I understand not everyone has the time or grace to work with these kids.
    I have many people who support what I do and are involved without actually working with the kids or taking up to much time. You can support organizations and people who are in your community that do make a difference. I have neighbors who don’t have the patients to work with my kids, but periodically come by and bring us cookies, or used school supplies that they found while cleaning out their closets. It seems little, but you would be surprised at how much that means to the kids. It shows them that their community cares for them and that they in turn care for their community.
    There are on the other hand a lot of folks with out children who live in DC and I would encourage those folks to consider taking some time to reach out. I will say that this city has some of the most generous wonderful people in the world! I have a team of volunteers who give up their Saturday’s to help these kids. It always blows me away when I have young people who could be doing a slew of other things give their time week after week to help. Thank you to all who do volunteer!!! 🙂

  • Thanks POP! I needed a story like this 🙂

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