The weekend before a man was shot in the face on his street, Kenneth Thompson and a small but dedicated army of volunteers shepherded 300 participants in a basketball tournament at Bulkeley High School in Hartford.
It was the fourth annual tournament from the family's Gussie Wortham Foundation, a local organization that works to prevent domestic violence. Kids want a place to go in Hartford, and they want something to do. Thompson schedules the competition to fill the dog days in August when many summer programs have ended but school hasn't started yet.
The first year brought 12 teams. This year, Thompson added two adult women's teams to the 30-team slate. It was a good weekend, with a lot of sponsors, including the city of Hartford, My People Clinical Services and a host of people who called Thompson back and then followed up with equipment or sponsorship.
And then that guy was shot out in front of Thompson's house. You could get whiplash, living in Hartford.
By his own admission, Thompson can be, well, no-nonsense. Make that tenacious. He uses an earthier word but says even if you run the naughtier description by his wife, Eileen Harris, who loves him, she'd probably agree. He doesn't spend time being polite because there's too much to be done. He grew up in Hartford and chooses to live in Hartford (though he works in East Hartford). He and his wife are raising their children just off Albany Ave. He knows intimately the cost a family pays when violence visits. His older sister Gussie was stabbed to death by her estranged husband in 1981. She left four children.
Thompson's basketball tournament - and the mentoring program he's still trying to find office space for, and a formal dinner he's starting to plan, and the school backpack giveaway he organized at his house earlier this week - are part of a city's best defense against violence. Kids need activities, and they need parents or parent-figures who will keep track of them, and they need to take personal responsibility for getting and keeping themselves out of harm's way and off the streets.
When Thompson finally dragged home around midnight that Sunday after the tournament, he could at least feel good that he'd done something positive. His long-suffering wife could look around their house and once again see the walls instead of boxes of trophies and T-shirts.
And then shots rang out early Thursday, and Thompson thought, "Here we go again." Police knocked on his door to ask if he'd seen anything. He hadn't seen, but he'd heard. The shooting, which wounded a 34-year-old man in the face, is still under investigation.
Being and living in Hartford requires a certain amount of resilience. You hear the shots, and you see the street memorials, and you remember when you were a kid and you and your buddies settled beefs with a fistfight, and then you'd be friends again. Where are the guns coming from? The knives?
It's enough to make people give up on Hartford - and people already have - but Thompson doesn't understand that. Things aren't going to fix themselves. The political knuckleheads who put fliers in his mailbox don't want to hear from him when he has suggestions for productive ways to fill the days (and nights) for Hartford's kids. They want his vote, sure, but do any of them show up or sponsor a team?
Thompson is a tiny lifeboat. He and others care deeply about this city, and they care long after the media have left in pursuit of the next shooting. They care whether it's an election year, and they care at no small expense to themselves. They listen to the gunshots, bow their heads and then get on the phone. There's work to be done. A formal dinner for kids to show off in fancy clothes would be nice, don't you think? Give them something to look forward to, something to plan for.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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