Angel Interview of the Month
Each month, The Angelrock Project features an Angel Interview of the Month, interviews with people who provide unique and life-saving services within large non-profit organizations. We hope that by reading their stories, you will understand their special contribution to society by working for invaluable NGO's within the organization's headquarters or in the field.
Keith Norris is the Youth Basketball Coordinator at The Salvation Army Bushwick Community Center. Working with youth from the at-risk neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn, NY, Keith offers more than just a typical recreational program. Part father-figure and big brother, he also mentors the children, teaches life-skills, and gives advice that they can relate to because he grew up in similar circumstances. His programs main purpose is to provide a safe and loving atmosphere to young men and women who might not otherwise have a positive environment in which to grow and excel.
Q. What is your title at The Salvation Army Bushwick Community Center and what exactly do you do?
A. My title at The Bushwick Salvation Army Community Center is Youth Basketball Coordinator. My responsibility is to create different activities for the brothers and sisters who participate in the program. We provide basketball, meals, and trips depending on our funding. We have a lot of people who either went on to have professional careers, or people who took a different route, come talk to them. They share what made them successful or what caused them to be a product of our many social ills in the community. Some of the examples of the social ills are incarceration, shootings, drug dealing, early parenthood, drug addiction and so forth. This is really effective because these are some of the brothers and sisters who are from the community who these kids admire for different reasons.
Q. Why do you think it is important for community centers located in the inner city to have a strong recreational program?
A. Society makes it seem as though our kids can only become successful through sports. Because of this, many of them get involved in sports at an early age. The positive thing about this is that it helps them to build strong relationships through sports. With the limited options within the community this gives them an opportunity to spend quality time together socializing in a peaceful, respectful, and loving environment.
Q. Tell us about the Bushwick area of Brooklyn. What are the challenges in the neighborhood?
A. Bushwick in a multi-ethnic community. It was a crime-ridden, drug infested community but has progressed in the last few years. Where there were once lots of abandoned houses, there is now nice new affordable housing complexes. The neighborhood still has a long way to go. There are still major issues that most inner city communities have, such as drug dealing, shootings, gang warfare, and teen pregnancy.
Q. Talk about the positive aspects of the neighborhood.
A. The neighborhood has progressed because of gentrification. As mentioned, there is more affordable housing. The parks are being renovated and people are becoming more conscious. There are a lot of parents who are getting more involved in their kid's lives. People are also taking more pride in the appearance of the community.
Q. How many youth take part in your recreational program and what programs do you offer?
A. My annual basketball tournament, which has been going on for 8 years, has 340 participants. We services kids from ages 4-21. The tournament takes place from June until the end of August. The winter part of the program averages 130 participants throughout the week. We service different age groups on different days. With my business partners, I also provide college tours, basketball training, life coaching, and SAT and GED preparation. We also send care packages to our college students and host "return from college" barbeques.
Q. What other types of services do you offer to the kids that might take place off of the basketball court?
A. Any assistance that they require.
Q. I know some of the youth involved in your program think of you as a mentor and father figure. How do you feel about this and what do you do to invoke this kind of endearment?
A. I don't associate what I feel and do with a title. I am thankful for the blessing that have been afforded to me. I like to think God uses me as a tool. My hardships and experiences allow me to see the world the way they see it. Being fatherless and growing up in poverty and having to endure all the situations that they are going through makes it easy for me to direct them. This gives me an opportunity to talk to them in a language that they understand. I am a firm believer that you can't take anything with you. So I share my experiences and blessings and hardships with them.
Q. Do you feel an extra responsibility to those kids who think of you as a father?
A. I think it's innate in us to be nice and helpful. I just try to treat people the way I want to be treated. The father figure part is funny because young brothers are conditioned not to be emotional or verbal. The ones who see me as a father figure normally don't express that to me. I think the guidance and love and discipline I show the kids makes them feel good because to them it is a sign of caring.
Q. Do you consider yourself a role model?
A. I don't consider myself a role model.
Q. I know that you work with youth in other cities. Tell us about it.
A. I work in Philadelphia on Mondays and Thursdays from 5:00 PM-9:00 PM. The Captain from the Salvation Army in Brownsville (another section of Brooklyn) got relocated to the Salvation Army on Broad Street in Philadelphia 6 years ago. His relationship with my business partner, who was his Community Center Director, motivated him to ask us to start a program down in Philly. It's a little more challenging because we started without a foundation. We did not have street creditability in Philly like we have in Bushwick and Brownsville. We started in September and it's been very rewarding to build a program from scratch and begin to make a difference. We are confident that we are building a nice program and it will be as effective as the one in Brownsville and Bushwick.
Q. What are you trying to instill in the kids through your recreational programs?
A. The importance of self respect, self love, and constantly educating yourself. We are also teaching the importance of spirituality, the importance of alternate information, and understanding the history of our people. We also want the kids to learn to be a positive influence in someone else's life.
Q. How do you deal with kids who play outstanding basketball but who are doing poorly academically? What do you do to encourage them to do well both on and off the court?
A. By telling them that knowledge empowers you and gives you confidence. I also tell them to always read and that power is in the words. We teach the importance of self discipline. Self discipline makes you get up in the morning when you don't want to. Self discipline allows you to step away from things that may seem good to you but is really bad for you. Self respect stops you from doing things that are counterproductive. I also give them examples about our ancestors. I tell them that slaves were killed for educating themselves. And then I tell them that 40% of NBA players are broke after 5 years in the League. We talk about the horrible stereotype where Black men who are educated and conscious are projected in a negative light. We ask questions together like why we are projected in a negative way through the media.
Q. Why do you think the government is cutting funding for after-school programs for inner-city youth. Do you have any ideas about what we can do to fix this problem?
A. I think it's a conscious effort for them to eliminate positive programs and build more jails. It creates jobs in those communities that have lost factory jobs. It's another way to enslave us as a people. People need to be more conscious of this issue and get involved.
Q. How did you become to do the type of work that you do?
A. I grew up in a spiritual household and my family is pretty selfless.
Q. What is the best part of your job?
A. Giving people an opportunity to have a better life. Sharing all my hardships and successes and letting them know that they are not a finished project.
Q. I know that you give a lot to the kids, but what do they do to make your life better?
A. Knowing that with my blessings, I am helping someone else have a better life. The conversations I have with people as we continue our journeys in life knowing that I did the best I could to help someone else.
Q. Tell us a great story about a kid that you have worked with.
A. Jamaal Tinsley from the Indiana Pacers came from a very impoverished background and is currently in the NBA. Kevin Davis who came from the program currently owns a chain of Popeye stores.
Q. Who is your mentor?
A. My deceased Grandmother
Q. What is your favorite book?
A. The Bible
Q. What is your motto?
A. Each one Teach one.
Past Angel Interview of the Month
Read about Linda Langstraat, Executive Director and founder of Adopt-A-Grandparent.
To view all past Angel Interviews of the month, please click here.
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