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Club's Influence Proves Priceless

December 18, 2004
By STAN SIMPSON, Courant Staff Write

Chauncey Lauray had Curtis Knight right where he wanted him. The12-year-olds had been going at it on the chessboard in the new Boys and Girls Club on Sigourney Street. But now, Curtis' queen was just about done for.

"You've got him. Finish him!" implored 68-year-old mentor Bill Russell to Chauncey.

"No," said Chauncey, smiling. "I want him to suffer."

After relenting, Chauncey put his opponent in checkmate. Then, before shaking Curtis' hand, Chauncey- dressed in a professional basketball jersey - did a shoulder shimmy, worthy of a hoopster after a big dunk. "I love this game!" he declared.

Chess is just one of the activities that the 400 or so young people participate in at the club. The new building is a hallmark of a $150 million investment in Asylum Hill, one of Hartford's most desperate neighborhoods. Connecticut Public Television, St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, Asylum Hill Congregational Church and a city housing program for first-time buyers are part of the neighborhood's resurgence.

A core of Asylum Hill Congregational volunteers, chagrined by the notoriety of the neighborhood -drugs, prostitution, shootings - decided to change its reputation and transform the street. They led a five-year effort to raise $7 million to build the Boys and Girls Club, which opened in October.

Where once there stood a vacant abestos-laden brick building, fronting a crack house, now there is hope and the buzz of youthful energy.

Most of the club members come from single-parent homes, with little adult supervision in those bewitching after-school hours of 3 to 6 p.m. Instead of mischief, the kids can fill idle time in a gymnasium, computer lab, game room, or in mentoring sessions, cultural programs or leadership training.

"I can't think of the words to describe how good this investment was for this neighborhood," says Tachica Murray, 23, a single parent who sends her son Trevon, 7, to the club. "With the crime and everything that goes on here, what is the closest playground that the kids have?"

Murray works as an office assistant and gets out at 4:30 p.m. Trevon gets out of school at 2:30 p.m.

"It's proven that kids who don't have after-school activities, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods, are far more likely to be caught up in all the problems that can happen in low-income neighborhoods," says Lee Allison, a retired corporate executive, Asylum Hill Congregational member and Boys and Girls Club trustee.

As city leaders wring their hands over the persistent episodes of violence among young people, one of the things you notice in the club is that unharnessed energy is expended in productive activities.

The street-smart staff at Asylum Hill doesn't play when it comes to discipline. Unit Director Alonda Simmons has no reservations about snatching a young man's cap off his head while he walks indoors.

Program director Chad Williams, meanwhile, recently ordered all the kids into the gym for a reprimand because they were becoming unruly.

A few days later, Eric and Karl were ready to rumble when William sent the elementary school boys to his office and demanded that they each write 10 things that they didn't know about the other and three ways that they could have avoided their altercation.

"We try to teach them that there are more things that they can find out that they have in common, and that they like about each other," Williams said.

Chauncey Lauray's and Curtis Knight's chess grudge match was less about winning and more about understanding the consequences of rash decisions.

"It's like life," Curtis said. "If you make the wrong choice, you're in trouble."

Stan Simpson's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at ssimpson@courant.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.

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