|By Yohana Desta|
Andre Route is holding up a crumpled sheet of paper in front of a room full of boys in the Little Guys, Big Futures class. He is teaching them about how to properly turn in a resume. The one in his hands is ragged and twisted, far from being presentable.
“I’m just being honest, you’re not worth anything when you turn this paper in. As a resume, this is a no-go,” Route said, his gravelly voice and grand stature giving the words an extra bite.
At 27 years old, Route found his calling early in life. For the past seven years, he has been a program coordinator and has taught all of the sports at the Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast, D.C., in addition to starting the Little Guys, Big Futures program, a class geared towards educating young boys and teenagers on how to be gentlemen. The course covers a plethora of topics, from respecting your parents, to dressing properly, to maximizing job skills.
The next topic on the schedule is sex education. Route lobs out scenario after scenario to the boys, with help from the guest speaker, Jamal Dunn. Dunn is an education curriculum coordinator who works with Metro Teen Aids, an organization that teaches sex education to young people ages 12-18. The questions they ask are unfiltered: What do you do if a girl wants to have sex without a condom? What do you do if she has an STI? What do you do if you have an STI? What does AIDS stand for? They toss the questions out with ease and the conversation moves rapidly, eliciting nervous laughter, snarky responses and brutal honesty from the boys; it’s almost like watching a big brother talk to a squadron of lovably wild siblings. When they respond in a way that’s clearly incorrect (for example, when asked the STI question, one of the boys murmurs that if a girl gives him an STI, he’ll hit her), he and Dunn put them back on the right path, making sure to frankly separate the wrong from right, but all while coaxing them to come to the correct answer on their own terms.
“Sex is the most popular topic, but it’s not talked about as I facilitated in the classroom, or in recreation centers,” Dunn said. “It’s not talked about in a positive perspective.”
That’s why the Little Guys, Big Futures program is so essential, according to Dunn.
“It’s been a program that’s been going on since I was a young one. When I used to go to the rec center, I had my mentors preaching to me about being respectful and being a gentleman,” Route said. “I wanted to start the program just to give kids a knowledge (of) how to be a young man in society, not to be a hoodlum in the streets.”
Paula Allen, a recreation specialist that has worked at Turkey Thicket for the past year, views the class as an emotional outlet for the boys as well.
“This is a safe haven and environment that they can talk to another man in,” Allen said.
The rec center was built in 2005, remodeling the old rec center that stood on the land for a number of years, and is run by the government, facilitated by the Department of Parks and Recreation. The new center emerged complete with a gym, basketball court, swimming pool, tennis court, track and playground. It’s a central piece of the Brookland neighborhood, open six days a week and essentially free to the public; anyone can come for a swim, take a kickboxing class or go for a run on the treadmills. There are programs directly aimed at different age groups, from the Senior Strength and Toning class for senior citizens, to the Little Guys, Big Futures program, and its sister program, Young Ladies on the Rise, taught by Paula Allen and Tiffany Johnson.
It’s a mecca for the neighborhood, as well as for youth who don’t have access to a rec center in their neighborhood in other parts of D.C., according to Route. Every day after school, dozens of kids pour into the center to hang out with friends and work on homework.
“The rec center is important for the community because a lot of kids are raised in single parent homes…(We) give them something to do until their parents get off work,” Route said.
That much is true for Brandon Keels, a 12-year-old boy who has been going to the rec center since it reopened. He is one of the more boisterous members currently in the Little Guys, Big Futures class. He comes to the center five days a week, to play basketball and hang out with his friends.
“It keeps me from getting (in) trouble,” Keels said. “The rec center is like my second home. My godfather used to work here (and) take care of me when my father was locked up.”
That second home sentiment is echoed by many of the young boys in Little Guys, Big Futures. They are at the center so often that they cannot imagine life without it. And in the middle of all this is Route, who the boys affectionately call “Dre.” His passion for their futures and for the program is evident in everything he does.
“He does a lot of things for me,” Keels said. “When my mother can’t drop me off because she’ll be at work, he’ll take me on field trips, he’ll take me to the movies. (It’s) not a part of (his) job.
The same can be said for Lonzo Brown, a 15-year-old who also comes to the center almost every day.
“He does a lot of positive things, he helps us out when we need it,” Brown said. Two weeks ago, Brown had lost $50 and when Route heard about that, he ponied up his own cash to give to the boy.
It was apparent early on that Route would work thrive working with youth. At age 20, he started taking in foster kids; he currently has a 13, 14 and 15-year-old, in addition to a 1-year-old biological son (all of whose names he preferred not to share). It’s not the usual undertaking for a 20-year-old: starting a family and supporting others — most 20-year-olds are still working on supporting themselves — but it just clicked for Route.
“Everyone needs a family and someone that they can count on,” Route said. “I’d rather let you be in my household than somewhere that you don’t really want to be, locked up.”
And for him, just like the kids, Turkey Thicket is more than just a rec center.
“I’m here with the kids all day long and I enjoy it,” Route said. “This is my second home.”
Click here to watch a video on the Turkey Thicket Rec Center.