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SOS prepares for summer

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- Anytime someone asks for support for a program designed to do good in a community, there are cynics waiting in the wings, ready to ask that one big question.

What proof do you have that your program's working?

Dontonio Wingfield and James Nix, along with some other key volunteers, combined their efforts to develop the unique Save Our Sons program that provides young people alternatives to the influences of street gangs through athletic and educational activities.

They've strung together funding for the program by calling on friends and acquaintances, by pitching their program to community leaders and by digging into their own pockets.

If you're looking for proof of the prgram's effectiveness, numbers are a good place to start. More than 63 kids, most from Albany's gang-infested Southside, have signed on to take advantage of the programs SOS offers. Even more telling, though, are the success stories that are starting to emerge from among the participants.

Like Dermund Stewart, the first player in Wingfield's Albany Hawks AAU basketball program to earn a college scholarship. Or 15-year-old Justin Ball, whose mother says he made a "360-degree turnaround" after finding direction through SOS.

"Those kinds of things are the biggest honors I've gotten out of all this," Wingfield, who made it to the NBA and is recognized as Albany's greatest basketball player ever, said. "It gives me great satisfaction knowing I can help these kids through some avenues that I didn't have when I was their age.

"That's why I'd love to see men and women who had difficulty growing up come out and speak to our kids. They need to see and hear from people like that to understand that they can make it, too. That's what our program is all about really, about giving back."

SOS officials were able to get a small Community Development Block Grant to help fund the program's actvities, which are vital to keeping kids off the streets in the summer months when many are left to fend for themselves during a break from school. And while the program's sponsors have managed to stretch the few dollars they've gotten as far as possible, the growing number of participants increases the program's needs.

"The CDBG funds are designed to serve 10 kids," Nix, a local contractor, said. "We have 63. But we've bought four laptop and two desktop computers that the students use for their academic studies, and we've gotten some volunteer help from teachers in the school system who've developed a strong study program.

"When we first asked the kids if they had homework, a lot of them would say they didn't have any. So one of our volunteers put together a study program that's related to the school system's curriculum. And, believe me, it's tough. The kids all say it's easier if they have their own homework to work on."

As the summer months -- and the AAU basketball season -- approach, Wingfield, Nix and other volunteers are working around the clock to find funding, volunteers and equipment that will allow them to provide summer activities for the growing number of students at the city parks and recreation department's South Albany Henderson and Carver gymnasiums.

"We want to start a tennis program," Nix said. "We're looking for books, board games, sports equipment, anything to keep these kids busy.

There are a lot of weekend activities throughout the city for the kids to participate in, but we're looking to provide sustainable programs on a daily basis.

"We're putting together a boxing program this summer, we have the travel season for the three (two boys, one girls) basketball teams, we provide tutoring, videogames, computers. We're going to develop a financial literacy program that may eventually allow some of our kids to get part-time jobs."

In other words, the principles in SOS aren't just complaining about the street gang problem in Albany's inner city. They're doing something about it.

"I think there's a greater awareness of what we're doing for these kids now in the community," Wingfield said. "I also think we're able to get through to some of them because they know we're bringing our experiences to the table. They can believe what we say because we've been where they are.

"We're able to give them a real heads-up on what's out there and what avenues they have that will allow them to have a chance at success."

(To donate funds or equipment, volunteer or get more information, contact SOS by calling (229) 395-4914 or (229) 430-5241. Information is also available at the www.savingoursons.com website.)