(Published in The Press of Atlantic City on Tuesday, April 28, 2009.)
Kevin Elliott and Davon McClendon work the basketball court at the Alms Center with the younger children. A juke here, finger roll there, stop and pop — fade-away jumper — and nail it.
Their basketball season at Bridgeton High School ended in heartbreaking fashion for the two senior starters, courtesy of a last-minute basket by Haddonfield to knock them out of the playoffs.
Now, they are preparing for next year at Salem Community College, working on their game inside the Alms Center, a 34,000-square-foot haven from gangs, drugs and violence.
“They built it,” Elliott said, “and we came.”
That they built it is no small feat.
The Alms Center has two basketball courts, numerous classrooms and conference rooms, a weight room, computer lab and an area for toddlers to stay. A free after-school program caters to more than 140 students from Bridgeton and surrounding towns. Two anti-gang initiatives have drawn more than 200 teenagers. The open gym draws adults at night.
This place cost $4 million to build. That wasn’t government money, and it wasn’t some company looking to turn a profit.
A church congregation built this place. A preacher some call “God’s mailman” sold them on it.
Pastor Albert Morgan spent 33 years teaching in Vineland’s public schools. Along the way, he learned a few things about children and cities, and when he proposed that his church, Union Baptist Temple, build a modern community center, his congregation answered the call.
“He heard the cries of the kids all those years,” said Victoria Smith, a church member and administrative assistant at the Alms Center. “So he brought the vision to the church and said, ‘We need a sanctuary for these kids. Someplace you don’t have to worry about being recruited, someplace you don’t worry about what color you wear.'”
The Alms Center opened in November 2007 across the street from the church, in arguably the city’s most crime-plagued neighborhood, where people have been killed in drive-by shootings and gunfights.
Morgan says it gives people “a safe environment to come (to) and fellowship in a nonthreatening area. And it’s nobody’s turf. I think people don’t go to certain places because it’s somebody’s turf.”
Brian Smith understands that. The Delaware State University graduate came back to his hometown after college, recalling how rough it was growing up in Bridgeton. He wanted to offer help so that others might have a better support network than he had.
“It was rough, coming up,” he said. “There was no opportunities really, no guidance. The violence, teen pregnancy — what else can I name? There was so much stuff.”
Smith had sports growing up, but he sees street gangs’ influence growing so much that it is drawing children away from the youth baseball and football programs that have long been a source of pride in Bridgeton.
So he is working with children in the after-school program started here in February by Tri-County Community Action Partnership. More than 140 children take classes in dance, music, teen sexuality, gang prevention, substance abuse, character education and other topics. Each child gets a meal in the program, which runs daily from 3 to 6 p.m. Local schools have worked with Tri-County to advertise and support the program.
“We’re giving them a lot of things they don’t get in the schools,” said Carole Green, who oversees the program for Tri-County.
Cumberland County government spent $224,123 for the program’s first year, the most Freeholder Director Lou Magazzu recalled the county ever spending on a program like this.
Freeholders liked the intensity of supervision and, with it, the ability to measure student success. With a proven organization such as Tri-County behind it, there was little fear of the program collapsing.
“Part of the thing with young people is you have to have some consistency,” Magazzu said. “You can’t start something and then end it. So that was pretty compelling.”
Children in the after-school program said they like it as an alternative to the sometimes dangerous neighborhoods in which they live.
“I had a couple of friends who used to get in trouble every week,” said Ashton Mack, 17, of Bridgeton. “One robbed a pizza man. Since they started coming here, he hasn’t gotten in trouble.”
It’s not just people from Bridgeton who frequent the Alms Center. Children are bused in from Upper Deerfield and Fairfield Townships for the after-school program. Two anti-gang initiatives have set up shop here on Monday and Saturday nights and bring in children from as far away as Atlantic City.
“It’s a good venue for kids to come out and be active,” said Ma’Quan Dawkins, a Bridgeton native who runs Follow Me and Lead, a youth group filming a movie based in Bridgeton. “A lot of people don’t know about it because it’s fairly new. You open up the doors, and it’s a great facility.”
Until its opening, no place like the Alms Center existed in the area — with not merely sports facilities, but classrooms as well.
“That’s going to put a lot of pressure on other cities,” said James Cooper, a Vineland native who runs the FedUp4U anti-gang program at the Alms Center. “Every city should have an Alms Center.”
IF YOU WANT TO GO
The Alms Center works on a membership basis. Most children pay a $10 monthly membership. High schoolers pay $15 monthly, while adults pay $20. Some donors cover sponsorships for those who cannot afford it. The after-school program is free.
The Alms Center is located at 28 MLK Jr. Way in Bridgeton. For more information, contact the center at 856-453-4913.