The boys’ high school basketball season has not yet begun, but Thurgood Marshall already has pulled off a rousing effort that will go down as one of its most impressive victories of the year.
“Never in a million years did I see something quite like this happening,” said Thurgood coach Darnell Hoskins.
“It’s really awesome,” agreed Yvette R. Kelly-Fields, the Cougars’ newest fan.
“It just felt good, really good,” said Derrick Daniels Jr., the team’s 6-foot-8 senior forward who has committed to play for Miami University next season. “It felt like we did something that really mattered.”
On this day of counting blessings, a lot of people in West Dayton are saying thank you to the Thurgood Marshall players, their fellow students and the coaches, as well as to the Wesley Community Center, where Kelly-Fields is the executive director.
And the lesson from all this — not just on Thanksgiving, but every day — is basic, Kelly-Fields said:
“We all need one another, so we should all be there for each other when we can.”
And last Saturday no one did that better than the Cougars, who wrapped up their “Hoops for Hunger” campaign with a day-long series of basketball exhibitions at the school gym, the culmination of which was the varsity matchup between Thurgood and West Carrollton High.
The premise for the day was simple, Hoskins said:
“We wanted to help some needy families in the Miami Valley with Thanksgiving dinner.”
He smiled as he thought about how that modest concept had been so gloriously eclipsed: “It went far beyond my wildest imagination.”
The initial idea, he said, came from the Ohio High School Athletic Association rule that allows schools to play what are called preseason “foundation games.” They are glorified scrimmages, but they must be paired with some kind of charitable cause.
A community activist suggested the connection between Thurgood Marshall and the long-existing Wesley Center, which is just 10 blocks away on Delphos Ave.
Along with after-school programs for kids, health and wellness services for senior citizens and workforce development programs, the center also has a much-needed food pantry that serves some 200 families a week and also helps with supplemental food for children at the Westwood Pre-K to 8 Elementary School a few blocks away.
“Initially, I wasn’t sure what the kids’ response would be, but when I told them the idea they really got behind it like gangbusters,” Hoskins said. “They went door to door and talked to people and they got on their social media, their Twitter and their Instagram and all their other media outlets.
“They let the rest of the student body and their friends and family know, too. West Carrollton also got involved — I took some (Hoops for Hunger) barrels out there — and it became a competition.
“At our school, teachers got behind it and classes competed with each other. My son’s history teacher, Mr. Muhammed, challenged his classes. The one that brought in the most canned goods had breakfast bought for it by the other two classes.”
Cougars assistant coach Steve Pittman — who like Hoskins played for the Dayton Flyers — took the idea to the Victory Wholesale Grocers in Springboro. The company employs several former area athletes and they “went berserk” with donations, Hoskins said with a grin.
Saturday’s marathon hoops session began with fifth- and sixth- grade games in the late morning and continued through the day with older and older teams until the Thurgood and West Carrollton varsities met in the evening.
Admission for fans centered on them donating canned goods. At halftime Kelly-Fields was invited onto the court to receive the pantry offering
At that time she said she had no idea what she was getting.
“You know people say they’re going to do something, especially young people, and sometimes you know they are well-meaning, so you hope for whatever,” she said. “But I’ve learned from being in nonprofits for over 20 years to set your expectations low and then you won’t be disappointed.
“So really, when they brought me out on the court I figured they’d collected a barrel or two of stuff.”
She laughed as she recounted how they finally took her back to the store room where the donations had been stacked from floor almost to ceiling:
“They opened the door and there was over 3,000 pounds of stuff! My mouth was agape. I was overwhelmed. I just kept thinking, ‘They kept their word. They did it! They really did it.!’ ”
‘A real blessing’
Kelly-Fields grew up on Dandridge Ave. which isn’t far from the Center.
“When our family was having some life struggles, we came to the Wesley Center,” she recalled as she sat in her office the other morning. “We used the food pantry and I remember they had a Girl Scout troop here and I was a part of that for years. I was involved in other things here, too, and eventually I took everything I learned and went on and did well in school.”
From Dunbar High she went to Wright State and then got her master’s degree at Indiana University.
She was then, as she put it, ‘’riding high” at another job when she got the call that the Wesley Center’s director was leaving. She was asked if she was interested, and though it was not part of the life plan she had envisioned, the more she thought about it, the more one thing sunk in:
“I kept thinking: ‘The Center was there for you when you needed it and now you need to make sure it’s there for the next kid.’ ”
That’s exactly what she is doing now. And the need in the surrounding area is greater than ever.
“Lots pf parts of Dayton are showing real good signs of recovery from the economic crisis, but West Dayton, and especially the neighborhoods right around here, are yet to feel that,” she said. “The people here have been some of the hardest hit, so we’re trying to meet their needs.”
Seniors can come to the Center to get meals, food from the party and transportation to doctor’s appointments and personal care needs.
People trying to get into or move up in the workforce can come to the center for business clothes to wear or bus tokens and gas cards for transportation. And along with food, the students at nearby Westwood can get backpacks and their parents can get help buying their uniforms.
Kelly-Fields then told the story of one woman who showed up a while back with six kids and little hope. She had wanted to be a nurse but was weighed down by life’s struggles, depression and a growing sense of despair.
“One of our staff members (Angela Matlock) took a special interest in her and talked to her daily,” she said. “If you share your dream with us, we’re going to go all out to help you achieve it. We all embraced her and loved on her and her spirit and confidence grew.”
Today the woman has a full-time job, is on the path to get her nursing degree, does volunteer work at the center and her kids are in the Wesley after-school programs.
“It’s been amazing to see her transformation,” Kelly-Fields said. “I’ve seen a lot of heartbroken stories walk in the door, but probably the bigger thing I see is when some of those same people can walk back out with hope.”
And that’s exactly the lesson Hoskins was looking for when he convinced his team to get involved in Hoops for Hunger:
“I wanted to give our kids a different perspective. Sometimes they don’t realize how blessed and fortunate they are. I wanted them to appreciate that.”
Hoskins’ son, Darnell Jr., the team’s 5-foot-10 senior point guard, does seem to understand.
“Basketball is our way of being seen and known throughout the community,” he said. “Having a big role like that can help you do something good in the community.”
Evan Clayborne, a 6-6 senior forward, agreed: “A lot of people got involved in this project because it was for a good cause. I’m happy we got to do it. Us giving back to the community felt like a real blessing.”
A little bit of help
The food and household items collected at Thurgood were trucked to the Wesley Center on Tuesday morning. The stuff from West Carrollton came in later.
Volunteers unloaded everything from large boxes of canned spaghetti and meatballs, ramen noodles, mac and cheese, stuffing, oat meal, cereal, soup, Chex mix and fruit punch to boxes of dish detergent, toilet paper and paper towels.
Once some of the Thurgood donations were placed on the shelves, the first of the day’s pantry clients arrived to fill a shopping cart with canned goods, fresh vegetables and other items.
People from the surrounding postal codes are allowed to come to the pantry once a month and get five days of food for their family. Maureen Slaughter, a 45-year-old Army vet who had served in Korea, was hoping to get enough to help get her family through to the end of the month and have a few extras for the holiday.
“I just buried my mother and had to pay for everything,” she said. “This is a good resource when I don’t have any money to provide for my kids. I don’t come here often — maybe once every two or three months — but they always give me a little bit of help ‘til I can get back on my feet. This is going to help me a lot with Thanksgiving.
“A lot of families out there now are really budgeting and need some help and a program like this is a real good deal.”
Testimonials like that provide the spark for what Kelly-Fields said to the crowd Saturday night at Thurgood Marshall.
“I told them philanthropy can be everywhere,” she said. “Some people say, ‘I can’t give because I don’t have a lot of money. I’m not Bill Gates or Donald Trump. I’m not those real wealthy people.’
“But the thing that’s great is that everybody can help somebody. You just make it an achievable ability to give. If you go to the store, buy one more box of something for someone. That’s understanding that we’re all in this together.”
For people who want to find out more or join the Wesley Center efforts, Kelly-Fields said they can go to their website, wesleycenterdayton.org, or to their Facebook page or call 937-263-3556 (extension 218).
She said people can make donations — money is used for everything from buying extra food at the food bank to getting bus passes for workers. She said the Center also needs volunteers to mentor those seeking employment or to help tutor math and reading in the after-school program.
Finally, she said, people can advocate for the Wesley Center.
“We all can do something for each other,” she said. “We can help another person in some way.”
The success of Hoops for Hunger prompted Hoskins to say he will push for it to become an annual event at Thurgood Marshall.
“It was pretty cool,” said freshman forward Damion Raglin. “We feel like we really did something. We really helped support our community.”
And because of that, Kelly-Fields made a quiet admission.
“Although I’m a Dunbar graduate — I’m really a Wolverine — I realize now I’m going to be sharing my heart,” she said with a smile. “I’ve got a new team now.
“I’m pulling for those kids at Thurgood Marshall.”
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