Occasionally, there comes a time when you might want to throw up your hands.
But that's not in Kenneth Thompson's nature. He might have a quieter life if he did that, just walked away from five years of scrambling for funds for a nonprofit organization he named after his sister, Gussie Wortham, who was killed by her estranged husband in '81.
But Thompson, Hartford-born and -bred, has seen too many people walk away from the city's obvious problems, and what good did that do — other than precisely nothing?
So he's at it again, struggling to scrape together cash, this time to get 22 kids to Springfield for a basketball tournament at month's end, and to attract money and volunteers for his annual B-Ball Classic at Weaver High in August.
This is not just basketball. It's having a grown man looking out for you, making sure you don't act stupid, checking up on your grades, providing mentors, giving you school supplies, taking your phone calls and reassuring you that you've got something, a talent, a sparkle. It is — corny though it may be — about being a part of that village that people so like to talk about but can't be much bothered by on a long-term basis.
In five years, maybe a thousand kids have passed under Thompson's watchful eye. Recently, he's downtown chatting over juice (he doesn't do coffee) when his phone rings, and it's Natasia, a 14-year-old stand-out basketball player. She's anxiously checking whether he's found the money to take her and the team to Springfield. He tells her he'll call her back. Thompson says she's awesome on the court. He thinks she could be all-state in high school.
But first she has to navigate her adolescent life.
In Hartford, kids need this kind of attention, and, as Thompson said, if he doesn't give it to them — or if there's no teacher or trusted adult standing nearby — they'll get it from the drug dealer or the gang-banger. A kid doesn't have to go far to get that kind of attention. She needs only to walk to the end of her street, and standing right there will be the Devil with a smile and a promise.
Thompson wants to stand between that child and the Devil. He stops kids he sees walking in his neighborhood and asks them: Where are you going? They might answer they're headed to summer school and then swimming, and that's it. Where are the summer programs, the job training programs, the sports camps? You want to bring back the Hartford of old? Treat today's kids as you were treated. Fill their days with possibilities.
Thompson wrote to the governor asking that she come to his August tournament. Her office said she already had something planned that weekend. He's looking for a few hundred bucks to buy trophies. The rest, he'll do what he's always done, with the blessing of his long-suffering wife, Eileen Harris, who never met the woman for whom the foundation was named. Thompson will take care of it himself, out of his own pocket.
So here's a thought: If you ever spent a good summer in Hartford, send a check. It doesn't have to be large, just a token of thanks to the city that nurtured you.
Here's another thought: If you're in the city now, the money that goes into memorial candles and R.I.P. T-shirts for children dead from the violence is money wasted. How about funneling it into something that lasts longer?
Gussie Wortham Foundation Inc. for the Prevention of Domestic Violence is at P.O. Box 320672, Hartford, CT 06132. For more information, see www.bballclassic.com, or call 860-727-0069.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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