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Through working with the National Youth Sports Program, Courtney Williams, a former camper and co-administrative assistant to Dennis “Coach” Harris, found her passion working with children, which led to her current career path in Social Work Administration.
Like many younger faculty members involved with the program, Williams attended NYSP as a child. Williams began camp when she was nine years old, but stopped going to camp as she entered the eighth grade. While she recalls many fond memories of her time with NYSP, one of her favorite moments at the camp was the overnight experience.
“They would do it overnight, and then the next morning was a family day. So that was pretty cool,” Williams said. “We got to sleep in the old gym and this big gym and play all night.
“I remember a lot of the camp counselors were also teachers, and you could tell they were really good working with us.”
While the name National Youth Sports Program implies athletic-centric programming, NYSP’s
inclusion of the arts and nutrition ensures there’s something for everyone - including Williams. Though she enjoyed a variety of sports at the camp, Williams was a young musician. She played the flute and drums, and performed in Warrensville High School’s marching band. She also credits NYSP in helping her stay in shape prior to the season beginning.
After graduating from Warrensville in 2006, Williams found her way back on Case Western Reserve University and NYSP. After completing her first year and learning about a job opening with NYSP, she decided to apply right away.
Williams said that she came back because she knows how NYSP helps in the community, and she knew she could make in impact by being involved as a staff member.
“Why not give back to a program that I know and helps the kids? Once I found out the position was open, that’s all she wrote,” Williams said. “I knew the program because I was in the program. I was used to seeing it all around campus, and I knew Coach was an awesome person to work for. I mean, it was a no brainer.”
The opportunity also gave her more experience working with kids, Williams said. She aided with securing funding for camp lunch and running the aftercare program, which looks after children for a few hours after camp.
“At this time, I was looking for an opportunity to work with kids before I graduated because I knew that's what I wanted to do after graduation,” Williams said.
NYSP fit into what Williams wanted to do for a living. She knew that she wanted to help her community and work with children. But in the long run, she could not figure out the best fit. After considering may career paths, including medical school, Williams’ call to help her community couldn’t be ignored. She knew she wanted to work directly with those in her community - an example set by her NYSP teachers and coaches.
After graduating from Case, she began working with teenagers with criminal behaviors, alcohol issues, and drug issues.
After working with children for a while, Williams went back to CWRU to get her Masters in Social Work Administration. After graduating again in 2015, Williams entered the administrative side of social work and is currently working with Guidestone and a rape crisis hotline.
Williams’ time with NYSP not only sparked her interest in working with children in her community, but it also helped hone her management skills. From implementing with the beginning stages of the aftercare program, to developing time management and people skills, Williams gained skills and experiences which translated directly to her future career path.
Williams also noted that working with NYSP helped her make connections throughout the campus community. In her role as an administrative assistant, she saw how both Coach Harris and the program operated behind the scenes, and how to think quickly and work hard.
As part of the NYSP administration, Williams witnessed the tough task of funding that NYSP at CWRU had to face. After she left the program, federal funding for the program was eliminated by the U.S. Congress in 2006.
“One obstacle was nothing. The train keeps moving because guess what: You still have to go to camp. It all comes back to that,” Williams said. “There's no way he could stop. He just can't. There's no way they can.”
Because of the lack of funding, other NYSP chapters in Cleveland closed. Williams recalled the memories of competing against Tri-C’s and CSU’s program.
“Now, we’re one of the only programs left in the state,” Williams said. “Money is always going to be a challenge, especially when you talk about urban black and brown children,” Williams noted.
However, Williams said that she saw how that challenge drove Coach and the whole NYSP team to work harder because of their motivation to help Cleveland’s children.
“Even if the government doesn't want to give the kids money, there are still all these kids in Cleveland’s inner city. They need somewhere to go in the summer during the day so that they're not just sitting at home. And Coach Harris and NYSP never lose sight of that.”
Despite what caused a lot of camps to shut down across the nation, Williams said that she saw everyone work harder to secure funding and do their best to put on a good camp experience each year.
“A big challenge you see is the visibility,” Williams said. “People know about it, but they don't know about it. I mean, people know because you have 500 kids in camp one summer, right? But I feel like the program doesn't get the recognition it deserves for how awesome it is.”
Williams said that she believes that the success of the program is due to Coach’s ability to bring in talented faculty and staff and that helping the program run as an adult has opened her eyes to all the hard work done by campers.
“There's a history of knowing that this program works, and it's an amazing program,” Williams said. “Behind the scenes, as an adult to see how much the staff put into this, how much they care, how much they know everybody, you know, is outstanding. As a parent, you know about your situation and about how much the camp has helped you and your kids.”
Williams gives back to NYSP not only to combat institutional racism, but because of the people who have given back to her in her own life, such as Coach Harris and her father. Williams recalls how it’s not just the lessons learned through NYSP, but the connections, lifelong friendships and spirit of generosity that have impacted her life.
“My dad helped me get through my last year of school and everything. That has helped me throughout my career, so that maybe eventually I can get to the point where I can work for myself or help others in a greater capacity.
“Since I started working for Coach with NYSP at CWRU, there's no time that I wouldn't be able to call him for something. A letter of recommendation or a reference to a job and things like that. He helped me get into graduate school, an internship and jobs after college.
“So for me, I'd do anything to help give back as far as NYSP is concerned, because of how the program has given back to me.”
On Thursday, December 20, 2018, twelve children, most from Case Western Reserve University’s National Youth Sports Program (NYSP), waited anxiously at the front of the Target in Steelyard as several Cleveland Browns players and community leaders, led by Defensive Tackle (DT) Larry Ogunjobi, took them for some early Christmas shopping.
It was a rainy night, yet many came out to shop as the holidays rapidly approached. The kids tapped their feet, clinging onto their parents or other important adults in their lives such as principals, pastors, and teachers. They congregated with NYSP employees and Browns Staff, awaiting Larry’s arrival. Little did they know, he was already in the building.
The anticipation kept building as the children moved to a decorative Christmas themed room. They sat around a table watching A Christmas Story while they waited for Ogunjobi to arrive. None of them had seen the movie, which had been released in 1983.
Ogunjobi and Browns Defensive End (DE) Emmanuel Ogbah walked into the room, and the children’s faces lit up. They would instantly find something in common.
“We haven’t seen it either,” the players laughed. Considered a Cleveland classic, this sparked somewhat of a lighthearted uproar around the room’s older crowd.
Before shopping, each child received a full meal including a personal pan pizza, wings, breadsticks and a drink among other snacks and give-a-ways provided by the Cleveland Browns.
“Have y’all ate? I can tell by the way y’all are looking,” Ogunjobi laughed. “I don’t want them shopping on an empty stomach.”
He walked around the room, stopping to talk to each child. They looked up in excitement; a Browns player cared about them.
The shopping experience came right in time for the holidays, but was inspired by year-round culture of giving back. “I like the family aspect of Christmas the most, my parents are coming down tomorrow,” said Ogunjobi.
Ogunjobi grew up in North Carolina with two parents who always stressed the importance of giving. His dad first worked driving cars and then worked his way up to become head of nursing, and his mom worked as a PRN, and is now a psychology nurse. No matter their profession over the years, Ogunjobi saw them always find ways to give to others.
“I’ve always watched my parents. What stood out was how much they gave. It wasn’t out of abundance, it was because they didn’t have anything,” said Ogunjobi. “I used to watch my parents, they used to give, give, give. I used to tell them, ‘Mom, Dad, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage because you give so much.’”
“They used to work 16 hour shifts back to back. My mom quit to take care of me,” said Ogunjobi. “They struggled to make ends meet. Never blinked an eye, always ready to go to work.”
When it came time to shop, several NYSP participants shared Larry’s enthusiasm for video games, heading directly to the electronics section. Others went to check out Barbies, Legos, bikes, and even PokémonCards. At times, they got stumped from all of the options.
“[My favorite Christmas present was] probably my Xbox from my parents. I liked Gears of War. The Nintendo 64 was up there too, I played Zelda.”
Whenever the children would have a hard time deciding on a gift, the players and adults helped re-focus them by discussing their interests and suggesting ideas.
Ogunjobi and his team would need backup, though. Several minutes into shopping, three other
Cleveland Browns players showed up to help the kids pick out gifts. The toy and electronics aisles became packed, and the shoppers began to notice. The kids excitedly picked out gifts with the advice of the DE Myles Garrett, DT Trevon Coley, and DE Chad Thomas. Commotion from all of the excitement caused Target patrons to stop and stare.
“At the end, when they started coming up and hugging me. That’s the biggest thing. It’s weird to at first to meet someone and understand their situation,” said Ogunjobi. “When you’re able to check out, and you’re able to get what you really wanted, it takes the burden off the parents. That’s really the best part.”
Coach Dennis Harris, Director of CWRU’s chapter of NYSP, put together the event with Larry Ogunjobi after a similar successful event last year. NYSP participants go to camp several weeks during the summer on Case Western Reserve University’s campus, where Ogunjobi first connected with the program as a rookie.
NYSP stresses physical activity, which Ogunjobi relates to through how he came to play football. In addition to being grateful to his parents, he noted that his high school coaches were huge factors in the way that he turned his life around.
“I was a fat kid when I was growing up. I didn’t care that much about it. A sophomore in high school, 350 pounds...They gave me a coach, and he helped me play football,” said Larry. “I couldn’t finish sprints and couldn’t finish the workouts. Coach came up to me and was like, ‘Larry, I just want to make sure you’re here.’”
After working his hardest, Ogunjobi saw how giving it his all paid off.
“I went through that first JV season, and we had that little award banquet, and we thought my friend was going to win Most Improved Player. Instead they called my name. That was the moment that I saw everything in motion...that’s when I decided.”
Ogunjobi’s decision has allowed him to make a difference on a Cleveland Browns team on the rise, as well as in the lives of children in the city.
“It’s not always about giving when you have a lot, but giving when you have a little,” said Ogunjobi. “It’s not every now and then, it's not sometimes. It’s all the time. Anytime I have something to give, I just do.”