For the past seven years, Curtis has been gathering at-risk young people — mostly African American boys who live in public housing and play sports — for a once-a-week group chat with SOUL, his community outreach program. Sometimes attendees discuss basketball, Curtis’s first love, but often the former coach steers the conversation toward education, business or the concept of success.
The point, mostly, is that they’re talking — and that week after week, the kids know someone is there to listen.
“Just young men sitting down to talk about the future,” Curtis says, and usually it really is that simple.
Curtis’s experience is emblematic of coaches and mentors across the country who commit their lives to building connections with kids who are looking for stability and to avoid trouble. Since March, however, with schools and in-person gatherings shut down because of the novel coronavirus outbreak, adolescents have been sent home, often to navigate an anxious future alone. It has left adults such as Curtis searching for ways to extend a hand at a time when they have to remain physically distant and when at-risk kids are without the structure that sports and after-school activities provide.
By mid-April, Curtis began hearing alarming whispers. Some of the kids who depended on him were skipping workouts, sleeping in, wandering down dark alleys. So he sent an invitation for a virtual Men’s Group, and on this Friday afternoon, he had hoped at least a dozen young men would log on and check in.
But when the video conference starts, only Keyshawn Hunter is there waiting. He is a senior at Washington’s H.D. Woodson High, where Curtis, 39, was once an assistant basketball coach, and three months ago his future seemed secure. A talented defensive lineman, Hunter signed in February to play football at Old Dominion University. He was going to get his high school diploma, work out, maybe relax, and then report to Norfolk this summer.
Instead, like most everyone, Hunter is home. Woodson will have no traditional graduation, and Hunter has no idea when — or if — his freshman season in college will begin. A generally positive person, Hunter tells Curtis he is surrounded by a growing sense of hopelessness.
“You basically stick your whole life to this, and it’s shut down,” he says on the call. “It’s a lot. It’s like: What am I doing it for, then?”
The 18-year-old keeps talking, and Curtis mostly listens.
“It’s hard to live,” Hunter says. “Just your thoughts and yourself all day. You can’t really work out. No space to clear your mind through all this stress; all this school work, and if you oversleep this day, then you might fail the quarter. It’s just made a lot of us have to grow up quicker — quicker than we ever expected.”
Curtis stares at the floor. He’s frustrated, too. When Hunter is finished venting, Curtis asks a question.
“So how can I be most helpful to you?” he says.
This is a time without simple answers, and Hunter thinks for a moment.
“I really ain’t too sure,” he says. “There’s really not that much you can do.”
‘There’s a different way’
Two decades ago, Curtis didn’t think much about what he wanted to be. Instead, he was driven by what he didn’t want to be.
He didn’t want to spend his entire life in Palmer Park, a Prince George’s County neighborhood that Curtis says was surrounded by blight, and he certainly didn’t want to be like his father. Donald Sr. had run track in high school, had a chance to go to college, but temptations tripped him up: drugs and, eventually, jail sentences.
The younger Curtis wanted a different future, but Palmer Park seemed to offer limited opportunities. He assumed, as did many of his peers, that being a professional athlete was his only hope, and he was a skilled basketball player at DuVal High. But poor grades prevented him from qualifying to play at the small colleges that were recruiting him, and even though he was eventually offered a scholarship to Chattanooga State, he knew deep down that his determination outweighed his talent.
“At that point, I didn’t see the NBA in my future,” he says. “I could’ve worked harder. … I was really lost for a long time.”
He learned late in life, albeit sooner than many athletes, that sports is rarely a career path. But he kept working and wondering: How could he succeed anyway?
Curtis was 19 when he retreated to Washington for the summer, wrote out his résumé, walked the city and admired the extravagant office buildings he dreamed of working in. He didn’t know what they did in there, and he didn’t care — he simply handed his résumé to whomever sat at the front desk.
Eventually a temporary employment agency placed him in the mail room of the Advisory Board, with a Georgetown office. Now that he was in the door, he wondered how you get one of those offices with a window overlooking the Potomac River. So, one day, he noticed a package addressed to the company’s chief executive, David G. Bradley, and volunteered to deliver it. He asked Bradley’s assistant if he could talk to the boss, and Bradley indulged the young man’s curiosities, eventually introducing Curtis to friends, executives and business leaders.
“There’s a different way,” Curtis says he learned, and eventually he became determined to share it. Even though he had indeed escaped his old neighborhood, he would need to go back to truly make a difference.
‘He’s a listener’
Curtis created SOUL in 2013, and he saw himself in some of the players: kids who wanted to succeed but had no idea how.
So he started Men’s Group and later expanded it to a girls’ program, Sister Circle. The concept was simple: They would gather once a week, and kids were encouraged to open up about their goals and the things holding them back.
If a kid lacked regular access to food, someone from the program would bring it to them. If a person said they didn’t have transportation, Curtis would arrange a ride. By the time meetings permanently moved into a classroom at H.D. Woodson, the point of them had become clear: It was a consistent time and place where kids could feel free to say and ask anything, a principle many youth coaches hide within their sports programs.
“There are social, emotional and sometimes academic skills that ordinary kids develop in the course of being with adults who are truly looking out for their best interests,” said Tom Farrey, founder of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program. “Lives and communities are changed, depending on whether a kid has real access to that type of person.”
Curtis likes to weaken social obstructions, often just one more obstacle in a kid’s path, and if a young person had never met someone from a different race, SOUL would pair the student with a tutor with a different background and perspective. If someone expressed fear or distrust of the police, Curtis would invite a member of law enforcement to answer questions.
“You can either perpetuate a stereotype,” Curtis says, “or eliminate a stereotype.”
When Tallya Rhodes, who had been homeless for part of her childhood, suggested a fear that her shy personality might hold her back, Curtis brought her with him to networking events.
“I’d just get braver and braver,” says Rhodes, now 19 and Woodson High’s valedictorian in 2018. “It really does sound small.”
But it wasn’t, and on occasion Curtis found that he didn’t have to say or do much of anything. Often the kids just wanted stability in their lives, something to look forward to and depend on. Though Rhodes is now in college in West Virginia, she still answers her phone and hears Curtis’s voice.
“The first thing that comes out of his mouth is: ‘What do you need right now?’” says Rhodes, who just completed her sophomore year at Concord University. “Just trying to understand me and how I’m feeling. He’s a listener.”
‘It’s all about follow-through’
In March, SOUL’s annual basketball tournament was canceled because of the outbreak. Schools closed, kids came home, and there was no Men’s Group or Sister Circle.
Curtis never was good at giving up, so he compiled a spreadsheet of current and former SOUL members. He called and texted, sometimes hearing back, sometimes not. It made him nervous.
“Call: message,” he wrote in a box next to the name of one young man.
“Texted on 4/24,” he typed in another.
“Talked to on 4/9: Need more engagement.”
That first video meeting, with only Hunter in attendance, had been particularly frustrating. He learned that many young people had been unfamiliar with video conferencing software, and that without reliable Internet or the patience to endure a painstaking registration process, some kids just gave up.
“Some people,” Hunter says, “are just not as strong as others. And even the simplest task can discourage them and cause them to shut down, which could result in a total relapse.”
But Curtis doesn’t like to think about that, so he gave himself permission to accept even nominal progress. Hunter kept showing up on Fridays, and if Curtis helped one young man navigate such difficult times, that was worth something. He nonetheless kept logging on and hoping others would join.
On a recent Friday, two after that first meeting, Curtis returns to the workspace and opens his laptop. Sure enough, only Hunter is waiting. Curtis sighs.
“I guess we’ll do it like we usually do,” he tells the young athlete, though after about a minute, there’s a chime as another attendee joins them.
Curtis leans forward, smiling when he hears Fayeden Stover’s voice. Though two isn’t a crowd, it’s at least progress. Curtis invites Hunter to speak first, venting about whatever is on his mind, and then it’s Stover’s turn. The young man talks for a long time, unloading family concerns, things that make him anxious, uncertainties and doubts. Curtis tells the young man to remain hopeful and stay the course.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “it’s all about follow-through.”
Stover starts to say something, though Curtis speaks at the same time. He stops talking and apologizes for cutting the young man off.
“I’m listening,” he says into the computer, and for as long as Stover needs him to, Curtis sits and lets the young man talk.