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Denzel's Supporting Role

Denzel Washington, Harold Daniels

Photo by Harold Daniels

Denzel Washington "on set" with (from left to right) Joshua, 12; Gabby, 14; Lauryn, 7; Daniel, 8; Tomi Jo, 7; Kenneth, 6, of the Westbank Boys & Girls Club of Southeast Louisiana.

Denzel Washington is in New Orleans to shoot 2 Guns, an action movie. Taking a break from preproduction read-throughs and stunt training, he strides into a large, ornate meeting room in the Windsor Court Hotel ready to get down to business. A camera crew is waiting, and so are six kids from the Westbank Boys & Girls Club, ages 6 to 14. They’ve been eating cookies and waiting on a floral upholstered bench for a solid hour and a half—some are sitting patiently; others, like 6-year-old Kenneth, are starting to bounce off the walls a bit. He slyly takes a cookie, wraps it in a napkin and puts it in the pocket of his khaki shorts; he’s saving it for his sister.

Washington was about Kenneth’s age when he started going to his local Boys Club in Mount Vernon, New York. And the clubs are why the movie star is here today. Though he appears anxious to get the photos taken as quickly as possible, Washington is all patience and enthusiasm when his attention turns to the kids—and when talking about the clubs, which he’s done many times. For 20 years, he’s been the organization’s spokesman, talking to journalists like me, recording PSAs, going to the Youth of the Year awards, helping to raise federal funds in Washington, D.C. If all this talking has made him weary, he doesn’t show it.

“I’m not the spokesperson for any other organization. When they asked me, it was easy to say yes, because I could easily talk about it, because it’s the truth. I just talk about my experiences,” he says. “I can’t believe it’s been 20 years! I was 12 then, I must have been 12,” Washington jokes.

       
Photo by Harold Daniels. Hair: Larry Cherry; Makeup: Carl Fullerton; Prop stylist: Tamara Connor; Photographed at the Windsor Court Hotel, New Orleans.

       

He talks about watching the Boys Club (they changed the name to the Boys & Girls Clubs in 1990) being built down the street from his school when he was 5 or 6 years old. “I would pass right by the club. I found out it was the Boys Club, but I didn’t really know what that was. I saw that kids were going there, so Mom signed me up,” he says. Washington went off and on until he went to college at Fordham University. “It kept me busy. Both parents were working [his father was a minister, his mother ran a beauty shop], so I had somewhere to go, supervised, that they felt comfortable about, and they knew I was safe, which I was. You know what I mean? I was one person they didn’t have to worry about.”

The Boys & Girls Clubs give kids a safe place to go after school, especially during those critical hours between 3 and 7 p.m. when they might otherwise be getting into trouble with friends or sitting on a couch watching TV or playing video games and eating potato chips. Staff members and volunteers help kids do their homework, they teach them how to use computers, they coach them in sports such as football and basketball, they give them a place to play board games with their friends, and—perhaps most importantly—they mentor kids, inspire them and help them make a plan for the future. There is a critical need: The national graduation rate, according to the U.S. Department of Education, is 75 percent—just 65 percent for black and Hispanic kids. That’s a lot of kids who aren’t graduating from high school, kids who are starting their adult lives at a distinct disadvantage. Meanwhile, the graduation rate for Boys & Girls Clubs alumni, according to the organization, is 90 percent.

“The club saves lives, literally, especially in this day and age. It gives you someplace safe to go where you feel loved and you feel respected and you feel wanted and you’re inspired and you can compete—you learn lessons of winning and losing,” Washington says. “I applied the same principles I learned in the club to my children”—overachievers in their own right: One daughter is in the film business, another is a senior at New York University, her twin brother is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and another son is a professional football player. “Especially when it comes to learning how to lose with grace. You learn that at the club. You go, you still shake hands afterward, you learn how to play fair—sportsmanship, honesty, all those lessons you can apply to other areas of your life.”

The BGCA certainly isn’t the only organization to tackle high school dropout rates—America’s Promise Alliance launched a campaign called Grad Nation two years ago, Big Brothers Big Sisters provides valuable mentoring, a group called Get Schooled will even send celebrity wake-up calls to kids to get them up and moving in the morning. But the Boys & Girls Clubs of America may provide the widest net for kids in the United States.

In the 20 years since Washington has been working with the BGCA, the number of clubs has risen from about 1,800 to nearly 4,000, and the number of kids served annually by the club has doubled from about 2 million to more than 4 million. Washington jokingly takes all the credit. “No, listen, I’m not here to act like I’m out front,” he demurs. “I’m not out front, I’m the mouthpiece. The best feeling I get is when I see the kids and I see the people doing the work and I shake their hands. If in any small way I inspire them, then great, but really, they’re doing the day-to-day work.”

 

       
Washington appears at the Washington, D.C., launch of a Boys & Girls Clubs billboard campaign in 2008 that featured a photo of him at an 8-year-old. Photo courtesy of Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

       

A few days earlier, I’d dropped into a local Boys & Girls Club in Minneapolis, and working they were. It was one of the first days of summer, and the scene was of cheerfully controlled chaos. In one room, kids were looking stuff up on computers, from educational games to research on pro wrestlers. In another, there was an energetic game of foursquare. Outside, kids played on the playground in the light summer rain. In the cafeteria, members of the Be Great Graduate program were eating fried chicken, potato salad and M&M cookies as they were congratulated for keeping their grades up during the school year. And in the gym, boys played basketball while a few teenage girls huddled together, pushing each other playfully and batting their eyelashes.

Mark Graves, the BGCA’s South Minneapolis branch director, has worked there for 22 years. He said it can be frustrating to watch the boys show a passion for sports-related activities, while the girls just watch them. As if on cue, in walked a tall girl wearing funky glasses, a T-shirt with rolled- up sleeves and long athletic shorts. She was clearly at home on the basketball court. Graves pointed to her and smiled. “Jazinae, she’s special.” Jazinae is a 5-foot-6 eighth-grader who started coming to the Boys & Girls Club when she was 9, after her cousins brought her from a local park. She said she comes for the staff and the programs—and the homework help. “You can’t ever be stuck, because there’s always someone who will back you up,” she said, and let loose a sparkling smile.

The BGCA is working hard to get boys and girls in the clubs’ doors and to come back often. To those ends, and specifically to reach out to at-risk girls, the club asked Jennifer Lopez to be Washington’s co-spokesperson, and she agreed. “Now girls have someone they look up to who can say, ‘Hey, this is what happened to me,’ and they can relate,” Washington says. “There are obviously things that she knows about growing up as a young girl that I don’t know; she can relate to young girls and whatever problems and issues and drama they’re going through.”

He says it’s important to get more women executives involved, too, at the local and national board levels. Which leads us to the issue of funding; he stresses the importance of individual donations—along with money from the federal, state and local governments and corporations such as Microsoft and Tupperware—in keeping the clubs afloat and maintaining the same level of services. Because club dues don’t go very far when kids can join for just $5 to $20 for the whole year. At the Minneapolis club, it’s $5. I marvel that kids can go five whole days a week during the summer for $5. A year. Not that there haven’t been hurdles in the past few years.

“Like many organizations, we’ve come through a very challenging economic period that certainly has improved, but that has left some scars in communities and has left some clubs still working hard to provide a level of service that’s in high demand,” says Jim Clark, president of the BGCA. “And a parallel challenge is that the need among kids in America today is growing: 20 percent live in poverty, and that continues to grow.”

Of course, high dropout rates have many contributing factors. If parents don’t value education, is it a surprise when their kids don’t, either? If teachers let kids pass their classes without learning how to read, how much can we hold the kids responsible? And there’s the constant struggle against negative peer influence. “In eighth grade, they’re excited about school,” says Graves at the Minneapolis club. “When they reach their sophomore or junior year, they have working parents so no one is at home, and it’s almost like you’re not as cool if you’re getting good grades. Even our so-called smart kids want to be accepted. And they find out how hard it can be to catch up if they haven’t been consistent and don’t have that strong parental support.”

Washington also acknowledges that the Boys & Girls Clubs are just one piece of the puzzle. “Everybody needs to do more. I don’t want to just dump on the parents and say it’s because they’re not doing a good job,” he says. “The teachers have to work with the parents, the parents have to work with the teachers, the parents have to work with the Boys & Girls Clubs, the Boys & Girls Clubs have to work with the parents. And whatever their religious instruction is, if there is any.”

Washington relates a story that may be at the crux of why he’s remained such a committed advocate for the Boys & Girls Clubs: “One lesson I learned was from Billy Thomas [the program director at the Mount Vernon Boys Club], in teaching me how to run. I was nervous about another kid who ran faster. He says, ‘Well, he doesn’t have the foundation, he doesn’t have the basics, he doesn’t know how to run, he doesn’t know how to turn the corner.’ And he said, ‘Your natural ability will only take you so far.’ When I decided in college to work on my master’s in theater, that rung in my head, that my natural ability was only going to take me so far. You never know when that bulb is going to go off,” he says. “You don’t necessarily appreciate that when you’re 9, but it comes back and you go, ‘OK, now I see what he was talking about.’ ”

Notable Boys & Girls Clubs alumni including Mona Dixon, Sugar Ray Leonard, Misty Copeland, General Wesley Clark, Ne-Yo, Kerry Washington, Denzel Washington, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Jennifer Lopez, Smokey Robinson, Mario Lopez, Ashanti Douglas, Shaun White, Shaquille O'Neal, Lucille O'Neal, Martin Sheen, John Paul DeJoria, Edward Jones Olmos, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Courtney B. Vance. Photo courtesy of Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

 

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

Oriana Cottard
I admire, love and am so proud of our dear beloved Denzel Washington as an great actor he is, have most of his amazing films. I just can support this one too and wish you all that G-d will bless you and keep you Amen
8/2/2012 2:46:34 PM

Robert P. Benoit
This is Great!!!
8/4/2012 10:52:44 AM

Rick McGilton
I have tried to find a recipe on line from the Sky magazine I just read on the plane. It came from the writer's southern family and was entitled Green something Dressing. It consisted of cucumber, onion, green food coloring, cream cheese and some other stuff. Could you please send me this recipe? Thank you.
8/12/2012 10:26:48 AM

Alan Duval
Dear Mr. Washington
My name is Alan Duval. Like you, I am from the same era as you. Therefore I share in the synergies that we have both experienced. I am ready and charged to support your initiative. I have decided to leave my native country, South Africa, some 18 months ago and have settled in Orlando. My social responsibility in South Africa has leaned toward Boys & Girls Town which I supported for over 14 years. I wish to continue the same initiative in the USA. I trust that I will be lead to the people who will will direct me to the appropriate parties who can guide me accordingly. I applause you all the people who is dedicated to this program and initiative.

God Bless

Alan
8/27/2012 7:25:44 PM

Cynthia Lucas
Wow, what a great article & great photos. Didn't know there were so many famous people that attended the boys & girls clubs. My kids attended years ago as well & the experience really helped them in making friends & communicating with new people. Big thanks to the boys & girls club for providing a healthy environment for kids to prosper. Also thanks to Delta Sky magazine for letting the world know how the club impacts the lives of kids nationwide.
9/4/2012 3:33:59 PM

Juanita Addison
Please help the Boys and girls club of america in Hempstead New York 11550 Denzel Please think of our children in nassau county! The children need you to come and effect our high crime and poverty neighborhood
9/12/2012 2:00:59 PM

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