They live in a city renowned for its violence but youth from East St. Louis are finding a safe, second home at The Salvation Army thanks to a basketball court and a 6-foot-4 teammate.
“A lot of people have given up on them, thinking they just like to goof off and play basketball,” said Lt. AJ Zachery who leads The Salvation Army’s East St. Louis Community and Worship Center. “The trick is to not condemn them for that but use it to reach them.”
Since his arrival in July 2013, Lt. Zachery has used basketball as a tool to connect with and reach the young boys in East St. Louis. The number of youth who attend his corps’ after-school program has grown substantially as a result. Playing basketball with him every day has not only taught the youth valuable character-building traits and provided them with a safe haven to spend their afternoons, but it has also introduced many of them to their first reliable father figure.
“Most of these boys don’t have a father figure and that’s something every young boy wants,” Lt. Zachery said. “So I go to their basketball games at school with cardboard signs of encouragement that I hold up when they make baskets. It sounds silly, but it really means a lot to them.”
This connection has led the boys to develop a strong trust in Lt. Zachery, which is positively affecting several areas of their lives.
“There’s one boy who is having a difficult time learning to read,” Lt. Zachery said. “Because he trusted me, he was able to open up to me about it and now we’re taking steps to address it.”
Because of Lt. Zachery’s time on the court, there are now more youth attending church regularly and even volunteering.
“When the kids didn’t have school last winter, they offered to come to the corps and shovel snow with me,” Lt. Zachery said. “I didn’t have to ask them, they did it because they wanted to. Our time together is changing not only how they spend their afternoons, but it’s also changing their hearts.”
The youth also now spend time volunteering with the food pantry, cleaning the building, and other tasks as needed.
Lt. Zachery knows firsthand how important it is to reach this group of boys and how basketball is the way to do it.
“It’s how I was first introduced to the Army when I was a kid in Detroit,” he said. “I remember my corps officer playing basketball with us and it will always stick out in my mind. It’s like, ‘Wow, the pastor of a church has a million things to do and he still made time for me.’ I want to do that for my kids here, too.”
Even the youth’s parents are thankful for The Salvation Army and Lt. Zachery’s devotion to their sons.
"A parent recently called and said, ‘Have you seen my son? I can’t find him.’ I answered, ‘Yeah, he’s right here,’” Lt. Zachery said. “And she responded with, ‘Good. That’s exactly where I want him to be.’"
Excerpt from "The Good" May 2014 edition
The Good is published quarterly by The Salvation
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