‘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.

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