The socioeconomic gap in Charleston is huge. If you're born near Broad Street, chances are you can sit back and be gently pushed toward a college degree and a spot at Dad's law firm. For those born on Columbus Street, the social influence is more toward "chilling on the block."
Leeardas "Lee" Murphy lost his mother when he was six years old. Today he's a freshman at Allen University in Columbia, and he attributes his success to growing up around the Boys and Girls Club on Mary Street. He got involved at six years of age and now, at 18, he plans to spend a good bit of his winter break helping out.
Visit the center today around 3:30, and you'll find several dozen young children working on math and language homework with the help of volunteer tutors. There's a computer lab, arts and crafts room, a full kitchen, game room, library, and basketball court. Teens have their own hangout space with couches and video games, and the game room features ping-pong, foosball, and pool. Smiling adults give high-fives to kids getting ready for four o'clock formation. It's a comfortable atmosphere — somewhere it'd be nice to hang out. "The Boys and Girls Club is a diamond in the rough," says Lee. "In this neighborhood you'll see people on the corners, police riding around. Despite all that's going on, you got some place you can just be yourself."
For those who didn't grow up in places like the East Side, it's difficult to imagine a world where the pressure to drop out of school starts around age 11. The club counteracts that with a program called Passport to Manhood, geared towards boys age 11-14 who are already feeling influenced to fight, be sexually active, and experiment with drugs and alcohol.
"We'd have a discussion about everyday problems and how a man would resolve those problems or step up to face those challenges," explains Lee. Sitting together in a circle, someone reveals a problem and the group suggests solutions. "You figure out what a man would do. Instead of being younger-minded, we learn to be more mature about decisions."
The main topic each week, Lee laughs as he reveals, is sex. "You got your boys, and you got Passport to Manhood. Your boys are like 'Don't be scared,' but you know to save it because abstinence is the best way. You don't want to disappoint your homies — they're like 'Man, you a punk.' But I can still do what I know is right."
The same mindset prevails in potentially violent situations. You might be a "punk" if you don't fight, but as Lee says, "I'm going to be a big man, and I'm going to walk away this time."
Thomas Spigner, known as "Mr. T" to the 85-100 kids that visit the center each day, grew up at 39 Mary Street, literally a block away from the club. He started hanging out there when he was 10 and is now the unit director.
'Mr. T' is clearly a father to many of the children at the club — they cook dinner together, play basketball, and address him with respect. He holds them accountable when they do wrong, and expects them to make wise decisions and act as leaders.
The Boys and Girls Club's greatest value is likely the family element that it provides. Kids who grew up with responsibilities, vacations, even cars, undeniably take their situations for granted. "Within this community, a lot of people don't have transportation or a lot of these luxuries," he says. "Seeing the faces on our kids as they ride over the new bridge for the first time, or taking them to Redux to draw, it strengthens them to feel like they do belong. We provide experiences that are just as high as the kids on Broad Street, or even better."
Downtown Charleston suffered 22 murders this year, the highest toll since 1963. While the city can tighten laws on gun offenses and police can increase patrols, outside factors can only have so much effectiveness in treating a preexisting problem. The Cannon Street YMCA, St. Julian Devine Community Center, and AGAPE Ministries all offer after-school alternatives for East Side youths. The Boys and Girls Club takes it a step further by directly addressing the issues kids are facing, and talking about solutions. "I'll stand on the front line for these kids," says 'Mr. T.' "They walk through the violence to be here."
Being able to just "be a kid" is what it's all about. "When you get embraced by people you don't know but still share that love, it's like 'Man, I never knew that people outside my family can feel this way about me,'" says Lee. "It's like love that you can only get from a parent. They're open arms to you." Lee plans to be a lawyer after college, and with his track record, he'll succeed.
To volunteer or sponsor a child at the Boys and Girls Club, call 843-937-6517 or visit www.bgclubta.org.