Operation Streets founder calls recreation programs the key to ending youth violence

Jeremy Lazarus | 4/28/2017, 5:28 p.m.
On the campaign trail, Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney promised to beef up after-school programs and recreational opportunities for youths.

On the campaign trail, Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney promised to beef up after-school programs and recreational opportunities for youths.

But in his first budget, he has continued the trend of recent years of slashing funding for the city Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities. Under the budget plan, the department is to receive $21 million, or $4 million less in the new fiscal year beginning July 1, with recreational services alone being cut by $600,000.

To the Rev. Charles A. West, the city’s decision to reduce recreation funding is shortsighted.

He sees a link between shrinking recreation, particularly in the poorest areas of the city such as public housing communities, and the recent surge in homicides and shootings involving young people.

“Too many of our young people are being left to their own devices,” he said, rather than being connected with after-school sports programs that provide discipline and educational assistance.

“We can’t leave this problem” to police, he said. “They want to lock people up. I want young people to become productive citizens. What we need more of are positive programs that enable kids to move in another direction. And the reality is that in public housing communities, there are few recreational opportunities.”

Rev. West has some insight into the impact that recreation can have.

For the past 18 years, he has run Operation Streets, a nonprofit he founded, and has worked with up to 100 youths from the East End and South Side public housing communities.

While the 72-year-old retired Church of God minister has slowed down because of health issues and reduced his program from three times a week to once a week, he said the operation is proof that such efforts can help change lives.

“Kids who have played for me have gone on to star in high school, gone on to college or into the military,” said Rev. West, who recently has become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church.

“These kids want to play basketball,” he said. “That’s the way I hook them. Before allowing them to play, they get homework help and spend at least 20 minutes getting information to help them in life.

“They also can’t play hooky from school and have to do their work, and they know I’ll check with their teachers,” he said. “And I have a strict pants-up policy. These kids need a program that stresses positive behavior.”

Those who hew to the rules, he said, gain rewards, including traveling to tournaments out of town. He said he has taken teams from his program to tournaments in Houston, New York City and Orlando, Fla., among other places. He said he pays the costs for the trips himself or with help from supporters.

Rev. West said he understands the youths because he grew up in the same circumstances in Chicago, even becoming a gang member.

He described himself as an angry teen who could have ended up dead or in prison like too many youngsters in Richmond. He said his life changed when his high school football coach took an interest in him and took him in as a foster son.

Rev. West said he finished high school and went on to play football at Grambling State University. Before finishing, he joined the Marines, served in Vietnam and then returned to Chicago to serve in the ministry.

But throughout his life, he said he has sought to pay back his foster father, Todd Walker, by running youth programs like Operation Streets, first in Chicago, then in North Carolina and now in Richmond.

He said he wished the city would understand the importance of such programs.

“We can either spend more on police or we can spend more on providing positive outlets in which our kids can thrive and find direction.

“There has been a lot of talk, but nothing seems to get done,” he said. “And until that changes, we’ll continue to obsess about the problem of youth violence.”