By Michael Hill
Just beyond the sounds of fast feet, frolic and the forming of friends at the Boys and Girls Club of Newark lies one of New Jersey’s worst cities battling the opioid addiction crisis.
The club considers itself an oasis of opportunity for kids to be kids — to run, swing, hang, dance, compete on the hardwood, master the latest beats or explore the limits of flying a copter.
Najee Massenburg can envision a career in music. It’s his passion. He seems way more mature and composed than most 13-year-olds. He’s been a regular here the last year.
“To me this is what the Boys and Girls Club is all about, just expressing yourself and doing what you love,” he said.
Najee knows what lurks beyond these walls. He was once tempted to join a gang because of peer pressure.
“I don’t think that kind of stuff is for me. I’d rather stick with doing the positive things rather than the negative,” he said.
Here, Najee and hundreds of other kids find and learn scores of ways to stay or get on the positive path. The club offers an after-school STEM class and countless hours of help with homework. A Rutgers class called “growing healthy kids”.
“It’s a healthy program to make us want to eat vegetables, fruits and all kinds of healthy things to make us grow stronger,” said Neveen Gadsby, a member of the Boys and Girls Club of Newark.
The young students even have a garden where they plant radishes and other food.
The club also prepares teens to take the driving test — road and written.
Rosa Arenas is the program manager.
“They’re eager to learn. They love to come here and they love to take the challenge. So if you put a challenge out to them to make it more fun and educational, they’re going to take that,” she said.
Chris Crockett is the manager of teen services and teaches the purpose of education.
“And why it’s important — even if you don’t like it — to engage in school and study and do homework. Not why you shouldn’t do the wrong thing but why you should do the right thing,” he said.
Chris has no illusions about what’s competing for his kids’ attention beyond the gates of the club.
“When I’m at the club what can I do to help build myself to make me feel better about being home and give me an end goal, give me a future — something to point at or shoot at to know you know what, it won’t be like this forever,” he said.
The boys and girls have a role model in Shaquille O’Neal — the Newark native who roamed the halls of this club and said it put him on the path to a legendary, NBA Hall of Fame career. Shaq’s a patron who’s generosity paved the way for an eye clinic — free exams and free eye glasses.
Shaq credits some of his success to Cynthia Banks, now the VP of operations here.