The music echoed down the hallway. Inside the classroom, four children and two teachers performed an original dance, the group forming a circle before each child broke out into a short solo.
Here, in a room at Northside Elementary School, the Boys and Girls Club of Chapel Hill has been born. The nationwide nonprofit works to give all children –regardless of socioeconomic status, race, gender, or age – “a safe place to go where they can learn and grow,” said local volunteer and fundraiser Marla Benton. “We instill a sense of community and responsibility, and they learn about leadership and discipline.”
When the song ended, applause rang out from the 15 or so kids seated at knee-high tables – and from Donald Williams and Phil Ford, who stood by the door, grinning. The two UNC basketball greats had come to speak.
“I think the special part was the courage that you kids have… to come up here and perform like that,” Williams began.
He tells the group when he was their age he was shy and would not ask questions in school.
“But to get better, I always stayed after or came in before class to get teachers to help me,” Williams said. The key is “to take the time to keep working at it.”
“Think about the people you love,” Williams said. “When you have somebody around, you take time to make them happy. ... Make them proud of you.”
One child asked about his T-shirt, which read Donald Williams Basketball Academy. Williams said the academy combines his passion for coaching and his desire to teach young children to be the best they can possibly be. He provided three Boys and Girls Club children with scholarships to attend his camp this summer.
But his last piece of advice? For a small boy in the front, who stared up at his 6 foot 3 inch frame: “Get proper rest, eat good, don’t drink or smoke, and you’ll grow.”
Phil Ford’s message was a bit different. Ford, who played in the NBA and returned to UNC as a coach, stresses the importance of reaching for the top even from a young age.
“I don’t think it’s wrong for you guys to achieve something that you want to do at this age,” he said. “You can’t wait to start being what you want to be.”
At the same time, a good coach always has a Plan B, which Ford said starts and ends with “a good education.”
For these elementary school students, who have just begun to learn, he advises, “Give yourself a month, and try as hard as you can in the classroom. ... It’s the best Game Plan B that you can have.”
It’s always good to have a mentor or someone you can trust to help you make decisions, Ford continues. He speaks briefly of his freshman year in high school, when he started hanging out with a group of guys who didn’t care about grades. For his parents, who were both public school teachers, it wasn’t an acceptable choice to make.
“An education,” he repeats, “is the best thing you can have to fall back on.”
The children line up to get autographs, and Ford wraps his arms around a cluster of children.
The Boys and Girls Club has not had an easy start. Chapel Hill lacks many of the larger corporations necessary to fund nonprofits, so money has been scarce.
“The process took longer than expected,” said Benton. Besides funding, there was also a lot of planning and organization necessary before the club could really begin.
Eventually supporters hope to establish a club in the Pine Knolls neighborhood near Lincoln Center. For now the room at Northside houses the Boys & Girls Clubs of Eastern Piedmont, Chapel Hill Community Impact program
Benton is not giving up.
“There’s a lot of well-hidden poverty in Chapel Hill,” she said. “It appears affluent. But for these forgotten children … there are certain programs, but not enough.”
She looked around the room, where children were playing hand clapping games, reading books, dancing. They look happy. And so do their teachers, Jessica Land and Ashley Quick.
“(My students) have grown so much over the semester,” said Land, who teaches first grade at Northside. “They’re more confident readers; they’re not scared anymore.”
Just then, some kids run up, asking Benton for paper and markers to draw. She points them toward a bucket on the counter and watches them scamper off, a smile on her face.