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Program's power is in organized sports - City kids find haven at Westside club

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Erica Wright, 61 stood proudly before a wall plastered with newspaper articles and graduation pictures of children and alumni of her program.

She is the founder of the Westside Cultural & Athletic Club, a grandiose name for a shoestring program designed to offer the kids of her impoverished, drug-ridden neighborhood constructive alternatives.  Wright has operated the program for more than 30 years from a two-story house next to her childhood home on Detroit's West side.

When I visited her earlier this spring, she pointed with pride to the articles.  But her pride was mixed with sorrow.

"I have stopped going to funerals," she said, after recounting how several of the children pictured had been killed over the years.  She then pulled open a drawer full of obituaries.

"This is ridiculous,"  She said.  "You have no idea of the tragedies these kids go through and survive."

Running for their lives

Wright knows what they're up against.  On a field trip once she brushed by a kid who was sleeping on a bus.

"The child jumped awake and yelled, 'No!  Stop touching me!'" Wright said, "I felt so bad.  So many of these kids are being abused."

The Westside Cultural & Athletic Club is a haven, where, for a few hours after school or on long summer days, children can play sports, do arts and crafts and study.

"No gangs, no drugs or alcohol," said Wright, ticking off the rules.  "You have to stay in school, respect adults and others and be willing to learn.  This is an exclusive club -- it takes a lot to do that."

Rubbie McCoy, 36 was part of the club from fifth through 11th grade.

"Me and my girlfriends used to just walk up and down the street; we didn't have anything to do," McCoy said.  "If it wasn't for Erica.  I don't know if I would have been going to the pool."

McCoy is now a swimming instructor at Detroit's Chadsey High School.  Her daughter Porscha, 11 is a champion swimmer and honor roll student who said she loves playing basketball and swimming with the club, just like her mother did.

"I want to be in the Olympics," Porscha said. "I like to win."

One more at the door

Wright want the 168 children who came through her program last year to be winners, and she will do what it takes to make them feel special.

In May, she organized 71 neighbors to clean overgrown lots.

"We cleared a path from the church to the school so that everyone can keep an eye on the children as they go back and forth," she said.  "Clean minds, clean bodies and clean communities."

Wright was a computer operator with the IRS until 1976, when her 9-year-old son's school baseball team started practicing in a nearby field.  Neighborhood kids, who weren't on the team, started pelting them with rocks.

"I took them aside and played with them," Wright said.  "The next day, there were on my porch asking 'What time is practice?'"

Wright immediately saw the power that organized sports had to defuse anger, teach discipline and open up children to learning.

"It broke my heart when I realized how many of them couldn't read," said Wright, who has won many awards, including the 2000 Founder's Award from the Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.  "Sports are a way to get them to vent their frustrations.  They can run their anger off."

But for every Rubbie and Porscha McCoy, there are countless others who slip through Wright's fingers.  In 2004, Alicia Jackson, 24, was killed in the neighborhood along with her 7-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter in a domestic dispute.

Jackson had been in Wright's program as a child and, a "good little girl, a great teenager and a beautiful adult," Wright told the Free Press after the killings.

Wright said she wanted to quit, especially since "too many people who could do something just don't care."  But then another person comes to her door looking for something to do.

As if on cue, a man flagged Wright from across the street as I was leaving.

"Hey, Miss Erica!" he hollered.  "When are we going to have another neighborhood cleanup?"


  2007 Westside Cultural & Athletic Club