Amir Shako spends much of his summer mentoring children, helping teach them math and history, as part of his work with a local non-profit organization.
There is fulfillment in that, the 16-year-old said, knowing that he is contributing in small ways to their academic betterment.
That’s an almost immediate pay-it-forward move as he goes there each day after his mornings are spent receiving guidance himself.
Despite being a member of the Poughkeepsie High School football team, Shako is among the more than 80 children enrolled in a youth football camp being hosted on his school’s turf field.
“It’s great because not a lot of camps are free,” said the rising junior, who also volunteers his time with the R.E.A.L. Skills program. “I never played organized football until high school and I’m still learning, so this is a benefit for me, too.”
He and teammate Ricky Minott are among the eldest campers there, so they naturally find themselves as role models. As they run drills and practice, there are several pairs of eyes affixed to their movements, the younger campers who aspire to eventually become varsity players.
“It’s cool because we’re getting some work in and sharing our knowledge with the kids at the same time,” said Minott, who is also a rising junior. “These kids are the future of Poughkeepsie, and not just in sports.”
That, really, is the crux of this free four-week camp and a flag football league that debuts next month. These initiatives, organizers said, are with the purposes of keeping area kids occupied while out of school and potentially steering them away from negative influences.
Participation in the camp has more than doubled since it was introduced in 2019, and despite temperatures reaching 90 degrees Thursday morning, most of the children seemed oblivious to the weather. That, or the joy of catching passes and running with the ball was for them a worthwhile distraction.
“We try to get the kids at a young age and hopefully get them to gravitate toward sports, and maybe in the long run that’ll help slow the violence,” camp organizer Roy Watterson said, referring to the rash of youth-involved crime in the City of Poughkeepsie. “You want to get them early and show them there’s better use of their time and there’s better things to be in life.”
Programs and community centers for kids are lacking
There have been several shootings involving Poughkeepsie teens in recent years, including one in May that injured a high school student, and some locals have spoken often about the need for programs and activities in which youngsters can channel their energy.
A group of Poughkeepsie High School graduates last month held an alumni football game and a flag football tournament for kids in Eastman Park, the organizers calling it a community outreach event and expressing a similar goal.
“When I was growing up in the (1980s), there was a stronger middle class and there were a lot more programs and community centers for kids,” Watterson lamented. “When companies and factories left, the city started going downhill and you see the effect on the kids.”
Dutchess County last year pledged $25 million to construct a youth center in place of what was the abandoned old YMCA building on Montgomery Street in Poughkeepsie. The proposed center would feature recreational programs, a pool, offices to connect visitors with social services, and a 24-hour childcare center.
That addition certainly will help, Watterson said, but construction isn’t scheduled to begin until next year. Small, grassroots initiatives like his camp can help in the meantime, he said.
With 82 children enrolled, ages ranging from 5 to 17, and with the financial backing of a city grant this year, interest in the camp has grown considerably.
How the football camp got started
It began three years ago as a one-week tutorial with Watterson, a former Marist College football player, teaching area kids the basics of the sport. It returned last summer and was extended to two weeks after a 2020 hiatus amid the pandemic. This year, the camp will run July 11 to Aug. 5, thanks in part to a cash influx.
Watterson received a $7,500 grant from the City of Poughkeepsie to help fund the camp, along with more than $4,000 in donations from local organizations. That, he said, covered the cost of supplying the participants with cleats, food and equipment, and payment for some of the staffers.
On the heels of this camp will be the debut of a Poughkeepsie flag football league for boys and girls between ages 4 and 10. That league, organized by Greg Charter, also received a city grant and will begin Aug. 22. Wappingers is among the local communities involved.
The NFL is making a national push to promote flag football and there is a proposal to make it an Olympic sport in 2028.
“We’re going to parks and talking to parents, looking to recruit kids for this,” said Charter, adding that parents can quickly enroll their children via smartphone using a QR code.
Like the current football camp, the flag league will be free and available to 120 participants.
“These are great programs and the kids are enjoying themselves and making friends,” said Jaclyn Greenwald, the social development director of the City of Poughkeepsie, who approved the grants. “Initiatives like these keep the kids engaged and physically active during the summer months, and it creates a greater sense of community.”
‘Something to keep them occupied and active, and out of trouble’
Isaiah Majurie signed his four sons up for the camp, and joined himself as a volunteer coach, despite never having played football. Most of what he’s learned about coaching has come from books and YouTube, but it was important to him to contribute.
“Being out here with them is so gratifying,” the Newburgh native said of himself and his sons Isaiah Jr., Aries, Lennox and Asar. “You love that there’s something to keep them occupied and active, and out of trouble. When kids have a lot of idle time, they can get into mischief, and that can eventually lead them toward the wrong paths.”
The morning training sessions feature conditioning workouts, common football agility and footwork drills, and instructions on the fundamentals including ball-security, passing and route-running. The campers are supervised by about a dozen coaches and staffers, including Allyson Braxton, a nurse who keeps a watchful eye during the physical activities.
Following the turf session Thursday, the group was ushered to the high school auditorium to meet a guest speaker. Kevin Lawrence spoke for more than an hour about his Poughkeepsie upbringing and how he turned his life around after squandering a collegiate basketball opportunity by running afoul of the law. The message, he said, was about perseverance and redemption.
“Sports can definitely open doors and help you become successful,” Shako said of what was learned from Lawrence, “but only if you want to help yourself. That’s where it starts. You have to want to do better.”
Among the volunteer coaches is Jayden Lassiter, a former Roy C. Ketcham High School football standout who now plays at Bowie State University. Helping teach the game to youngsters is fun, he said, but the real impetus in him being there is to serve as a role model and a positive example.
“I see the potential in these kids, and you want to make a safe haven for them and give them guidance,” said Lassiter, who graduated Ketcham in 2019 and now is a Criminal Justice major. “I’m proof that you can make it out of Poughkeepsie and do better. You don’t have to go to the streets. You can be an athlete, get an education and make something good of yourself.”