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Nights at the Y
By David King
photos by Alicia Solsman

Albany’s YMCA gang- prevention night attracts large crowds—and usually avoids preaching at them

Three black youths stand on Washington Avenue in Albany. “Yo, he was all like Anakin Skywalker on that shit son,” shouts one as they twirl their backpacks like light sabers and fiddle with their CD players. An elderly white couple walks by cautiously, nearly falling off the sidewalk, making sure not to get too close. The kids are waiting patiently (as patiently as young teens can) for the doors of the City of Albany Gang Prevention Center to swing open.

Three Saturdays a month, from 7 PM to midnight, the Gang Prevention Center offers kids a safe haven from the realities they would normally have to face on the streets or at home. The program, headed by Ron “Cook” Barrett and housed in the Washington Avenue YMCA, is designed specifically to keep the most at-risk youth population of Albany off the streets and out of gangs during the time they would be most likely to have nowhere else to go.

Barrett has a round, bald head connected to his short strong frame by a neck draped with large gold chains. He is almost always dressed in flashy, baggy track wear and a fresh pair of basketball shoes. Besides running the Gang Prevention Center, which is a project of Albany’s Department of Youth and Family Services, he also lectures about gangs across the country.

Unlike most of the kids he is helping, Barrett is white and 40 years old. Although he gets the occasional odd look or disbelieving stare, he still can connect with some of the hardest-to-reach kids. He is a torrent of energy and concern.

Barrett approaches the group of waiting teens not as an administrator, but as an older brother. “Yo, Cook, can we grab the ball?” inquires a teen as Barrett pushes open the YMCA’s doors. “You know it’s all good my man. Just do me a favor and find something to prop the door open and it’ll all be good,” responds Barrett.

The kids pour inside and begin pulling out tables, opening up cabinets and setting up chairs. Barrett scurries around, frenzied, until finally he sits down in front of a desk with the sign-up roster.

Once inside, a teen tells Barrett, “I’m hungry.” Barrett hands the teen some money and says “Go run across next door, grab something.” “Where? I don’t eat meat,” says the youth. “You know it’s all good. It’s chicken, fowl, poultry, the best pigeon they got on Central Ave.,” responds Barrett. The teen thanks him. “It’s all good, my brotha,” Barrett responds. “Just grab me a bottle of water. Good look!”

Kids flood in from all over the area. The first time teens come to the program, their names are recorded. Then, each time they stop by, their attendance is recorded. Even though this, a summer evening in June, is a time attendance is usually down, 200 kids will swarm through the doors this evening. Barrett tells of having to turn kids away on winter weekends because too many kids are already inside. Each September, he begins a new roster. On this year’s so far there have been 1,525 individual signatures, and new names are added without fail every Saturday.

According to Barrett, his program is as effective as it is because it offers common ground to kids from all around the Capital Region. Kids who might otherwise be feuding because they are from uptown or downtown find themselves playing basketball games together. Barrett says that the uptown-downtown feud in Albany is very real, with the city being split mainly between the Bloods and the Crips. “The city is split red and blue, but I ask these kids, ‘Where is midtown? Where is midtown in Smallbany?’ ”

Barrett says that he has known of times when kids involved in gang activity around Albany found themselves jailed with a member of a rival Albany gang. “Suddenly, uptown and downtown doesn’t mean so much when you’re the only kids from Albany facing off against kids from New Jersey and New York.” But Barrett would much rather see the kids finding their common ground on the YMCA’s basketball courts than behind bars.

Barrett says that when he started the program in 2000, the basics came easy. “We wanted to open this place up to kids who couldn’t normally afford it. For a building like the Y to be closed in an area like this, where they really need it, I said, ‘It’s just a no-brainer.’ ” As for activities: “Recreation was easy. We give ’em a ball and say, ‘Play,’ but we also have computers, guest speakers, cooking for the girls and fashion shows.”

The most creative feature of the program is that Barrett and other volunteers videotape things that go on during the night. They sit down with kids who tell the camera their stories and hardships, and then they edit them together and project them onto the gymnasium wall the next week. Barrett sees this as a huge self-esteem booster.

“We’re here to breed kids to replace us,” says Barrett. His friend and recent volunteer at the program, DJ, agrees. They both fondly remember growing up in Albany and having role models in the community who “threw the rope over the fence” for them, including Little League and Pop Warner coaches and heads of youth programs who took extra time for them.

Barrett points to Omar, one of the Saturday night program’s alumni who is now in college. John Flynn, director of the YMCA, promised Omar that if he kept coming to the program and got through high school and college he would have a job waiting for him at the YMCA. “John threw the rope over the fence for that kid,” says Barrett. Whether because of the dangled carrot or not, it seems that Omar has done so well for himself that Barrett and DJ doubt he will take Flynn up on his offer. They do expect Omar to be back to help out at the program, along with other kids who have made it through.

Obviously, not every teen who attends the program escapes the street life, and Barrett openly talks about different teens who are now behind bars. “This one guy, I didn’t see him in the program for a couple months and then I hear he’s in county lockup. I get down there and he’s telling me, ‘I wish I hadn’t gotten involved with other stuff. I wish I had kept coming to the program.’ ”

There is a jubilant atmosphere in the Y on this June night. Kids joke with one another as they stroll down the hall. At worst, the atmosphere is reminiscent of between-class periods in middle school—a very tame middle school. While giving the kids something they want to do probably plays a huge part in their decent behavior, it also has to do with the volunteers, who not only set up activities but become part of the crowd of kids.

Lou Ann Gapp, a short, blonde-haired woman who got involved with the program through her church, began volunteering in March 2001. Gapp goes out of her way to make sure the kids know her. “We don’t just walk by without acknowledging the kids. We make sure to stop and say hello and see how their day has been, to see how they feel,” she explains.

In a side hall, Albany Police Officer Dan Nadarski sets up. Nadarski comes in full official blue uniform, but he brings a computer full of games. He has been assigned to the program for more than two years and is not required to bring a computer. Nor is he required to talk with the kids. But he does both. Nadarski goes out of his way to request the assignment.

“I never got that about cops,” a young man says to Nadarski, who is standing behind the front desk of the Y monitoring security cameras. “Why do ya’ll have a gun and a night stick?” The group of kids surrounding Nadarski begins to chuckle and laugh. “Why ya’ll need both? One ain’t enough?” Nadarski cracks a smile and casually intones, “Take our test.” The group pauses for a moment, looking at Nadarski with eyes glazed over in puzzlement. “Take our test. You’ll see why we have both.” The kids look back and forth at each other. Then the original speaker says, “I ain’t taking no test. Why don’t cops have braids? I ain’t never seen a cop with braids.” Nadarski rolls his head, chuckling.

Nadarski is not the only APD officer in the program. Detective Dan Stevens has been with the program as long as Barrett has. Stevens doesn’t go to the lengths Barrett does to identify with the kids—he certainly is not wearing a track suit—but neither is he in recognizable uniform. Stevens can regularly be found swinging his legs from the front desk, chatting and laughing with anyone who stops by.

This particular evening, Stevens has found himself more popular than ever: He brought milk and cookies. “Yo, man, let me get a swig of that!” demands a teen with a bright basketball jersey.

“You drink milk out of the container at home?” asks Stevens. “Get a cup and you’ve got your milk.” The teen runs to the snack counter and returns, triumphant. Later, while tossing the empty milk container in the trash, Stevens confides, “I never thought milk would be so popular with this crowd.”

David Graham sits in the coach’s office in the large gymnasium. In front of the office are two turntables set up as a DJ booth. The bass from a Jay-Z song rattles the bibles piled on the bookshelves above the desk. “A large part of the program’s success has been that we let the kids do what they want to do,” says Graham, who has been with the program since the beginning. Graham also works at Albany High School as an assistant teacher, and he is nearly as popular with the teens as Barrett. He can almost always be found on the courts or in his office watching kids play.

Tonight, the only reminders of the realities the teens have to face outside of the program are the rap songs that blast from the PA speakers, songs with lyrics about pushing drugs and the word “fuck” used in ever more creative ways. The teens don’t seem to be paying attention to the words, though, as they dash around the court. The beats of the music and the dribbling of the balls seem to create a focused placidity. Despite all the furious ballplaying and the angry music, all is calm.

Barrett and other staff report that in the program’s five-year history there have been no notable fights or problems. It is often difficult for outsiders to believe this.

That point is made very clear when a young APD officer with short, buzz-cut blond hair and bright red cheeks appears at the front desk. “Had an incident with a group of teens down on Swan. They sent me down here,” reports the officer as he nervously begins patrolling the darkness in front of the entrance to the Y. Stevens and Barrett invite the officer in and tell him to have a look around. The officer’s eyes dart from teen to teen as though he might be suddenly surprised. His cheeks remain red.

“They send guys down when there are incidents in the community just to make sure no one comes looking for kids in the program,” says Gapp. “But we’ve never had a problem before. I think this guy’s just a little nervous.” The officer seems dazed and worried as he passes through a group of giggling, yelling teens. But soon enough, he has calmed down and is chatting with Stevens.

“I invite anybody to come see what makes these kids click,” says Barrett. “Everyone wants to know what is with the violence. They’re kids, and they want everything you and I wanted as a kid: protection, belonging and respect, and if I can give a sense of that to these kids, then they aren’t gonna be out in the streets.”

Barrett says that the kids in the program often are treated as problems to be analyzed. Groups from various law, teaching, or social-work organizations come down periodically to ask the teens questions about violence in their lives. While Barrett generally encourages people to come talk to the kids, he doesn’t encourage groups who do things like give kids tickets for pizza slices in return for answering questions. “Kids come up to me asking, ‘Yo, who is this, Cook? Why they here?’ These kids are real, and they recognize real.”

Which isn’t to say that every kid who attends is paragon of virtue, or that Barrett will always defend them. During the early hours of a June session, a man with spiked hair, dressed in khaki shorts and a polo shirt, approaches Barrett and explains he is “having a problem with some of the kids. . . . After your kids got out the other week, one of them was laying on my car,” he says. “I say excuse me and he ignores me and I say excuse me again and the kid just says back ‘I’m going.’ So I get in and start my car and start driving and he moves.”

Barrett looks at the man and says: “That’s part of the stuff we are dealing with here at the program. We teach these kids to respect this area just like they would their own neighborhood.”

The man begins to smile. “That’s probably a big part of the problem. Don’t treat their own areas too great,” he says, now in full-body chuckle.

Barrett assures the man he will talk to the kids about the incident during the group get-together later in that night, and asks the man if he can describe the teens. The man makes a comment to the effect that all the teens in the program dress the same.

“It’s all part of the gang culture,” says Barrett through what seems to be a feigned smile.

Barrett is notorious in the region for his stance that “a gang wannabe is a gang gonna-be” and that kids become attracted to gangs through symbology and speech from rap music and TV. But he doesn’t try to make the gang-prevention program free from those influences. In fact, sometimes it seems to be the opposite.

As a group of girls leaves the program, Barrett calls after them, “Yo, where y’all going?” They keep marching, but a little faster. He persists.

Finally, one stops. “We’re gonna go to my friend’s house,” she whines at Barrett.

“Yo, man, I’m glad you stopped. I was gonna have to call my girls and get ’em to jump you if you dissed me like that,” Barrett says, laughing. The girls giggle and continue on their way.

“I play roles,” explains Barrett. “I sit in meetings with the mayor and I shake hands and promote the program, and then the next minute I’m back to myself chilling with the kids, talking like this. . . . We need to show the kids that life is a game where you have to fulfill certain roles. They can have their gangster thing. They can try to live that image, but they need to be able to turn it off to function in the real world.”

Resources are a constant struggle. So far, the program has been funded primarily from a multiyear Department of Justice grant and money from the Meridian Corporation. But Barrett says funding from law-enforcement sources is trickling away, often being diverted toward “homeland security.” “What do you call it when you got communities too scared to leave their homes cause people are outside getting shot?” asks Barrett. “You gotta take care of your backyard before you worry about anything else.”

College interns have done some fund-raising from local businesses, but according to Graham, “After the pretty college interns are gone and we show up the next year asking for money, those [local] businesses are no longer so interested.”

As a result of shrinking resources, there is less going on within the program than there used to be, and the messages that are sent to the kids vary based on who is willing to volunteer.

Currently, the largest influence besides Barrett on the teens comes from Lou Ann Gapp and other members of the nondenominational Christian Victory Church on Quail Street in Albany.

After a Saturday block party in July, the church sends over a Christian rapper. Some bible students from various countries follow, saying they heard there was an after party. Barrett seems a bit miffed. The students pile into the gymnasium. They stay isolated, away from the regular teens.

A fat man in a basketball jersey sits slumped over in a chair, not interacting with the teens. They carry on with their basketball games, ignoring the chairs being set up on half their court. Church members continue to push back the start time for the rapper’s show, hoping for more of an audience.

Finally, around 10 PM, the show starts. The slumped-over man is introduced. “Hey, ya’ll, what’s up,” he says as he saunters in front of the crowd. “Ya’ll ever had that thing where you ate too much good food and you feel like if you do too much you’ll puke?” The kids look back and forth at each other, confused. Anyone who spends much time at the program is acutely aware that a number of these kids don’t get regular meals.

The rapper chokes/raps his way through a quarter of a song and then announces, “Yo, I’m mainly here cause I want to talk to you kids about our Lord.”

He then launches into a tirade about sex. “I don’t know what ya’ll know about gays and lesbianic sex, but if you be sleeping with lots of people then that makes you gay.” After that, he explains that he has “slept with six women and has had oral sex with over 30.” The teens begin to squirm furiously and giggle as he reports that he called every woman he ever had relations with to apologize. Then he explains that the biggest apology one needs to make is to the Lord.

“Yo, I want ya’ll to close your eyes. Now if ya’ll is feeling the Lord moving you to stand up and apologize, then you should stand up.” The teens look back and forth, some confused, some angry, some disgusted. “All right, man, now if you feel the Lord working through you and you don’t stand up then you’re a . . . alright, I didn’t want to have to get this real, but if you don’t stand up and you’re feeling it then you’re a punk!” Some kids sigh, some head for the door.

Volunteers stop them from leaving. The rapper angrily spouts, “Yo, man, can I get some attention. Yo, up here.” Finally, after another few minutes silence, the rapper says, “Man, if the Lord is working through you and you don’t stand up, then you a bi. . . OK, I’m not gonna say it, but you know what I’m talking ’bout.”

At last, the sweat-soaked rapper shuffles over to a water fountain. The teens all head back to the courts to grab basketballs, and normalcy returns. Barrett’s point that whoever shows up to work with the teens gets their ear has never been clearer.

It’s 9 PM on a Saturday night in July, and the numbers in the program have begun to thin. The oppressive summer heat and lack of air conditioning has made playing basketball upstairs like swimming in a fishbowl. The most content kids are the ones seated around Barrett at the entranceway. In fact, there is usually some controversy over who gets to sit next to Barrett.

One teen digs in his pockets to show Barrett the name of a social worker or a parole officer assigned to his case. “OK, yeah, I know this guy. He’s a good guy. I don’t want to hear you’re giving him trouble,” says Barrett.

It seems the program is coming to an early end tonight, yet outside, a group of girls haphazardly dash their way across traffic toward the Y. Drivers jam on their brakes, lay on their horns and flash their lights through the twilight haze. The girls continue on their way, giggling and chatting.

A woman sitting on a stoop groans, “Kids ain’t got nowhere to go. Ain’t no one watching out for them.” Ironically, this is the one night of the week when that isn’t true. Tonight they are headed to the Y. Tonight someone will be watching them.


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