Kenroy Usher remembers the time he and his mother encountered an unusually forthcoming stranger on the streets in Belize.
Usher was only 10 then – and a good boy – but the unfamiliar woman apparently felt compelled to issue a dire warning. Within a few years, she said, the boy will join a gang. By the age of 15, he will have fathered a child.
By the age of 25, his life of violence and crime will leave him incarcerated or, most likely, dead.
“In Belize,” said Jeremy McCulloch, a police detective in that small and poor country, “young males are an endangered species.”
Fortunately, the woman’s bleak prediction proved wrong.
Determined not to become a statistic, Usher began watching the Chicago Bulls and superstar Michael Jordan. Wanting to “Be Like Mike,” he hit the cracked cement basketball courts of his country and became a two-time hoops MVP before “retiring” to lead sports programs for youth, offering other young men the same path to a good life that he himself traveled.
“Sports have changed my life,” Usher said Wednesday morning to a packed Capitol Room of the Holmes Student Center.
McCulloch, Usher and six other delegates from the Belizean Youth Sport Coalition Project led a panel discussion on their experiences as athletes, coaches and teachers and how those relate to Belize’s needs for youth sports.
Wednesday’s Q&A was part a week-long training session and workshop to teach the visitors from Belize how to use social responsibility as a method of productive coaching.
The main take-home message from faculty in the NIU Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education: the talent and discipline required to excel at sports are the same ingredients needed to lead responsible, productive lives.
Naturally, it’s the coaches of youth sports who bear the responsibility of making sure their young charges understand and adapt that thinking.
“ ‘Sport builds character’ – it’s almost a mantra,” interim Chair Paul Wright told the audience. “I would argue, and I think these people would agree with me, that doesn’t happen automatically.”
Usher, for one, is convinced. “I can’t wait to get back home to teach the kids what I’ve learned,” said Usher, who each summer runs basketball camps in his old neighborhood.
His story resonated with others on the panel.
They spoke of politics and poverty. They spoke of injuries that ended athletic careers purely for the lack of sports medicine or athletic trainers. They spoke of dilapidated facilities and short supplies of equipment, including balls.
They spoke of the tiny numbers of their countrymen who leave Belize for professional sports careers – and the even smaller percentage of those who return to make a difference.
They spoke of government officials who control funds that would pay for sports – and the need to worry not about possible strings attached to those dollars but about building the best programs possible.
“In my country, sports is not seen as a priority. It’s more of a pastime,” said Darren Bovell, basketball coach at the University of Belize, for whom sports are “a passion. I try to help kids in my county to get a better education through sports.”
Kaya Cattouse, a soccer player and competitive cyclist from a family of competitive cyclists, confirmed that youth sports programs offer “an avenue to get away” from the temptations of street gangs and dropping out of high school.
She leads summer programs in soccer and cycling to children ages 7 to 15. “I always want to give back to the kids who have the same dreams I had,” she said.
Enid Dakers Castillo, a mother of three, said she believes sports empower youth.
Castillo has “always been tall” and resented her height, she said, but a basketball coach forced her onto a court. She later played three years professionally in Mexico City, returning home to work as a youth sports coordinator.
“I have fun building my community with the kids. In Belize, there’s a lot of talent,” she said. “Through sport, I have become a very respectable person. I want to share that with the kids and help them grow.”
Carlos “Charlie” Slusher, national sports coordinator for the government of Belize, acknowledged the struggles. “As much as we do for sports, we simply don’t have the amount of resources to do more,” he said.
He also understands the benefits. The former soccer player began traveling the world in competition at a young age and later became a coach.
“Because of sports, I am here today,” he said. “I grew up in a single-parent house, very poor, on the streets. I had an opportunity to get an education I never would have been able to get. I would have been in jail or dead.”
Slusher said his country has “the talent, the drive and the motivation” to rise above its conditions, prompting people like those on the panel to jump at every opportunity for the kind of professional development they’re receiving this week in DeKalb.
The Belizean Youth Sport Coalition Project was made possible by a three-year, $224,956 grant to the Physical Activity and Life Skills (PALS) Group at NIU from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Bovell, who works at the University of Belize, is speaking this week with Wright about the possibility of a partnership that would allow college students from his country to study athletic training and sports medicine at NIU.
And, Usher told the NIU crowd, do not doubt that children in Belize are eager for sports and the life skills that sports offer.
“The kids can’t wait for the programs to start,” he said of his summer camps. “They are looking for somewhere to go.”