ALBANY, Ga. -- It was a day to celebrate overcoming the odds.
As the only National Youth Sports Program still in existence in Georgia, Albany State University's program director Jesse Massey was in good spirits as he honored past participants and longtime staff members during the program's 35th anniversary celebration Tuesday morning.
Retiring ASU educator Wilburn Campbell helped to bring the NYSP to Albany in 1975. The free five-week program is for low-income, disadvantaged children ages 10-16. It offers instruction in athletics and academics, as well as drug and alcohol prevention classes. This year's program, which pulls participants from Dougherty, Lee, Terrell, Mitchell, Worth and Baker counties, concludes July 2. It has 450 students enrolled this summer in the weekday 7-1/2-hour program.
"I tell you when you look along your professional career and look for the marks that made a difference, this would be at the top," said Campbell, a 42-year educator and the school's dean of the College of Education. "What's most important is the support we get from the community, which is so important in these dire times. Everyone does their little part to keep us going."
Albany State, the city of Albany and Dougherty County have been the largest financial contributors over the years to helping keep the National Youth Sports Program alive in Albany. Massey said at one point about 210 colleges and universities offered NYSP, but now only 31 communities nationally still host the 42-year-old program after federal funding was cut in 2005.
Reaching the 35th-year milestone was significant to Massey, who has been with the program since its first year when he was the first participant to register.
"It means a lot because we've survived," said Massey, who retired last year. "It matters because of the fact that you've got an enrichment that exposes them to a college setting and teaches them to get along with others.
"It's class, but fun," he added. "There's 20 minutes of instruction and then 30 minutes of fun."
Campbell spoke to the students enrolled in the program at the start of the morning celebration. He urged them to not be afraid to say no, to not underestimate the power of reading and to be responsible for their actions. He also encouraged students to keep their clothes from hanging too low.
"Nobody wants to see your dirty behind," he told the students. "I can predict your future by looking at your behind."
Robert Cross Middle Magnet School rising eighth-grader Chelissia Sumbry has participated in ASU's National Youth Sports Program for five years.
"It has helped to be more involved with activities, and things I couldn't do, I learned when I came here," she said. "It's just amazing to see how these people came back after 35 years. When I see these (alumni) people and myself, I see that they have helped me with a lot. I want to come each year to learn more stuff and when I get older help children younger."
David Miller was one of the longtime instructors honored at celebration event. As a 15-year NYSP instructor, the Dougherty Comprehensive High School teacher credits the program with helping participants to build character, improve attitude, self-esteem, sportsmanship and better their math and science skills.
"It has grown," said Miller, who wasn't exposed to NYSP as a child growing up in Florida. "It gives them a chance to be creative and to stay busy."
The 35 years since he was first introduced to the National Youth Sports Program have flown by for Massey.
"I remember walking across the bridge to sign up for the NYSP program and the first person I met was Dr. Campbell," he said. "I soaked it up and became a teacher and retired. It's not out of my system. I can't get enough of it."