The Importance of Parents in Youth Sports and Other Activities Today...

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My "take" on what happened at Penn State this past week...it's a long longer story than normal, but will help parents and kids to know why I am different than most coaches you would ever meet in youth sports today... 

Okay, this is been on my mind for over 30 years and perhaps even longer...my first experience of 'hearing' about a elementary school teacher and 'mentor'-type individual who preyed on unsuspecting young boys came from an experience I was made aware of over 35 years ago in Independence, California...

I had made a decision in my "sportslife" to move on from playing professional basketball overseas and get "on" with life as I "renewed" it back in the good ol USA (1974)...The opportunity to be involoved with kids in youth basketball and also as a volunteer as a Juvenile Justice Commissioner in Inyo County, the largest county in the State of California, was an experience that paved the way towards how I became the "advocate" for all children participating in youth sports today...

I worked part time with the Juvenile Probation Department in Inyo County, and Mr. John Lee, Chief Probation Officer at the time, took me under his wing and taught me many things about the troubled youth in this county that I will always remember and apply those lessons learned with the knowledge and skills to communicate with any young person today...

As a volunteer JJC, we would meet and discuss the "whys" of our issues with juvenile miscreant activities in our county and what could we do about it...I was so smart, I suggested that instead of sending our kids down to Los Angeles to the California Youth Authority 'camps', we needed to keep our delinquent boys, ages 11-17 in Inyo County...Why is all of this important, I'll tell you why...There was a young juvenile ward of the court who I had to transport from Independence, California to LA, and drop him off at this facility in Los Angeles...the drive was a 3 hours plus, and the conversation was intense...His name was Michael C., and I was suppose to transport him in my "cage" backseat as I was transporting him...well, as you can imagine, here is this young fella, scared to his toe cuticles, heading into the unknown, frightened like a spider monkey seeing an Orangutan for the first time...Anyway, I broke the "rules" and allowed Michael (his peers never addressed him with his last name, even teachers also) to sit up front with me for the long drive south...He "taught" me more about the "issues" of our rural area in terms of "not" helping kids with learning disabilities and broken family issues unlike any book that could have ever taught me during my time in the Probation Department...

Michael told me he "did" these miscreant activities (breaking into cars, shoplifting and getting into fights) to get help, any kind of help, as the beatings he endured at home from an abusive father making him think about doing things that were worse than he could have ever imagined at the time...Now, he was finally getting "help" in the way he never ever suspected: locked up in a "displaced" venue for troubled youth, an "disHONOR" Camp, so to speak, but unknown to me in terms of the stuff that was ongoing there...Michael and I became "new" friends on this trip and I told him that we stay in touch and that he could contact me anytime and I would "listen" to him...Just that WORD alone made all the difference in the world in his mind: "...someone who cares and will listen to me..."...When I transferred him over to the facility director, and walked the grounds to visualize what exactly Michael's life would be like daily, at first glance it appeared "safe" and I blindly thought Michael would flourish in such an environment...The 'camp' had outside sports fields, wood shop, small farm operations with a garden, chickens, etc...When I was ready to leave, Michael was summoned to say goodbye, and I hugged him and told him to write me and "let's stay in touch..."...

A month went by, and I heard nothing from Michael, so I called the facility and spoke with the Director there and inquired as to how Michael was doing...She said he was "struggling" with the discipline and structure of the programs there and was in solitary confinement several times...It was here that I became "aware" of something bigger that I could have ever imagined: "bullying and abuse within the confines of this facility..."...I asked my boss, Mr. Lee, if I could make a special trip down and visit with Michael and do a "research" on the overall advantages or not of our assigning Wards of the Court *(Juveniles) to this venue... 

The conversation and experience I had upon my return visit to this camp changed my whole outlook on how we (adults, parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, religious figures, etc.) "assume" other administrations can "reform" troubled youths...Michael met with me and broke down, uncontrollably, he had bruises on his arms and a healing black eye...It took me over an hour for him to "open" up and tell me the horror of his experience after one month...He was attacked by 3-4 gang members at this facility, and told me he had to "do" things or they would 'kill' him, and he couldn't do anything about it because "they" controlled this place...mind you, over 100 kids were at this 'honor' farm (kids who would "only" serve 6 months or less...the abuse he endured and was forced to do made me sick...The tears and fears he shared scared me so much I wanted to TAKE him back to Independence with me right now...I told him that he would be protected from this point on and I would try to have him relocated back to our city, Independence, as soon as we could...

I hugged him, said a prayer with him, and said not to worry about any repercussions from this conversation, that he would never be subjected to this type of abuse again...We parted, I immediately met with the Supervisor there, shared my story and concerns and told them that Michael's life is in danger and that it was their responsibility to separate him immediately from the general population there...that I was informing my boss, Mr. Lee of the issues and circumstances surrounding Michael's incarceration at this time...I called Mr. Lee, told him verbatim what I had just endured and experienced in conversation with Michael and "can you please get the court to release him to our custody RIGHT NOW, I fear for his life, etc..."...Mr. Lee told me he would speak to the Judge and see what he can do on his end and that he was going to speak with the authorities there...I was also instructed to "come home...", and leave it to him and others to help Michael at this time...People, I was so distraught with Michael's sad story, I sped back to Independence from LA and was stopped by the Highway Patrol for speeding on Highway 395...the Patrolman saw my "State" car, ID and License and the "cage" in my undercover State Vehicle, that he let me go...He asked me "why" I was going so fast...I told him what I had just experienced and was distracted just trying to think about how I could change the system of reforming our misguided youth in Inyo County and NOT send them away...He was very understanding and told me to "take it easy" and get home safely...I did...

The End to the Beginning of a new story...Within two weeks, Michael was released from this facility and returned "home" to Inyo County to a Foster home in the area...I was not allowed to return to the facility to pick him up as I was considered persona non grata by the Supervisor there and Mr. Lee didn't want me to get into it when I picked up Michael...guess he knew my "Irish" temper...Michael's subsequent relocation and counseling helped him tremendously and the foster family provided the model to follow that he never experienced before in his young life and he recovered... 

What happened next was the most incredible experience I can ever share with all of you who just think I was and have been a "basketball coach" in the NBA...My trip back from the California Youth Authority farm the second time, inspired me to come up with an idea that even Mr. Lee considered at the time, but didn't "know" anyone who lead it until we had become close friends: he, my mentor with troubled youth, and me, the willing student of life who cared and wanted to help anyway I could...The launch and operation of the "Boys Group Home" of Independence, California was underway...yours truly became the Director with NO relief help for the first 6 weeks (really!!)...6 boys were assigned to this home, and I was the cook, father, brother, teacher and coach all in one, at the young age of 27...We laughed together, cried together and yet learned something new about ourselves and respect for others daily...During the first six months of our operation, we had a total of 12 boys go through the  program, ranging from 30 days to 6 months 'lockup', which was far from anything that the California Youth Authority would ever endorse...One young person, Eddie L., age 12, gifted pen/pencil artist and "tagger", was in our program due to his miscreant activity that ranged from tagging, shoplifting, sniffing glue, minor in possession and stealing from parked cars at Park Trailheads in Inyo County...Eddie was the youngest and "weakest" of all the boys we had in our program that year...he wasn't any taller than 4'6" and I had to give him four rolls of quarters, two in each pants pockets, to weigh him down when he was outside and the wind was blowing...anyway, Eddie told me about his young life, the lack of supervision from his drug induced parenting model (mother and seldom seen father), and how he was labeled "runt" by his peers and "dared" to do things he shouldn't do in the community...he got caught, obviously, and similar to Michael, was just screaming for attention and help...Eddie told me he really liked school, but because he was always getting into trouble (fights with others, disrespecting teachers, etc.), he hated going to school also...I asked him if they (school) provided any counseling for him and his mother, and he said at the time, a social worker came by but they never saw her again...he then told me about an assistant "principal" at his school (Big Pine Middle School) that was a "bad" person, and he was in "charge" of discipline, etc...Eddie told me that this guy was taking advantage of boys who were getting in trouble and that it was not "nice" what he was doing to some of them...Whoa, I said to myself, "...what the hell is going on here...?"...without going into detail with me, he said he never "gave in" to this guy and it was then that he became a truant, not wanting to EVER go back to that school again...I immediately contacted Mr. Lee and asked him to come over and sit down with Eddie and myself as it was really a serious issue going on in Big Pine, California...Mr. Lee came over, took notes, told Eddie he was a "brave" young man to speak up and that he was going to help others so this wouldn't happen again...he told Eddie to NOT say anything to anyone as the (authorities) had to do background checks and investigate this and if said he told me and Mr. Lee about this conversation, they may never "catch" him and charge him...Two months later this "educator" was charged as a pedophile and sentenced to prison...the number of boys was more than several, ages 10-14...Eddie, under our program was successfully released back into his community with a Foster home and finished high school...

Okay, why is this reflection and this long, longer story than you would/could have ever imagined from me? Because WE, as adults have to "raise" our children in our "village" daily and embrace those young people who are friends with our children, and yet their circumstances in their home lives and sports lives might raise our awareness and we're wondering "if' there's something that they would like to talk about or share with us that will help them through their sadness, etc...Listen, Folks, all I'm asking here, saying is this: "...know your kids friends, understand their fears and needs, and most of all LISTEN to them now, so you too can help them to help others less fortunate and preyed upon by unsuspecting so called "leaders"...

As you know, I have NEVER closed our training sessions and remind parents to ALWAYS be sure to observe the "coach model" of your son/daughter training, playing, being coached in ANY activity by a volunteer coach...IT is OUR responsibility to make sure our children are safe, protected and encouraged to communicate WHENEVER a coach, teacher or other adult member of society tries to take advantage of them, or verbally abuses them for mistakes, the way they play, and just general negative imprinting upon their young psyches...Can I get an Amen, here?

To the voices of our children, may your hearts be heard by us all...

Coach tom  

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