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Using sports to stop the violence

Verna Montgomery sitting at her desk in her Fordham apartment.

Verna Montgomery sitting at her desk in her Fordham apartment. Photo: Amara Grautski

Verna Montgomery and her pack of curious children couldn’t help but stare at the lifeless figure across the street from M.S. 399.

It was a Saturday morning in August, and just like every Saturday morning that month, the 50-year-old African-American woman from Fordham had brought a group of eight- and nine-year-olds to the schoolyard to play basketball. She tried to divert their attention from the corpse, ushering the juvenile flock away from the horde of police officers, reminding them not to be nosy. But she couldn’t hide the fact that barely 100 yards away lay another casualty of violence in the Bronx.

A single mother of three herself, Montgomery didn’t know what to tell the children. Their parents weren’t around to help. When one child asked what happened, she replied simply, “Reality.”

“How do I tell my little ones what a dead body is?” she asked a group of residents at a 46th Precinct Community Council meeting almost two months after the incident. The vision still haunts her. She won’t stop telling her story. “We need to stop the violence.”

While crimes like burglary and grand larceny have decreased in the Bronx this year, according to the New York Police Department, the murder rate in the borough has risen by almost 20 percent. Through October, there had been 109 murders – 11 of them coming from the 46th Precinct, where Montgomery lives.

But Montgomery had taken a stance against violence years before her plea at the police precinct in October. In 2007, she founded U.B.A. Sports Club 4 Kids – United Binding Athletes – a non-profit organization and grassroots sports program in the Bronx that is meant to be an alternative for children who might turn to the street. Since then, she has worked with more than 100 children, charging about $50 a program for some of her basketball, baseball and track leagues. She has brought them to high school football games, basketball games at Madison Square Garden and events like the New York Knicks Poetry Slam.

And on Aug. 28, two weeks after being confronted with the dead body, Montgomery created the Stop the Violence Basketball Tournament. WABC-TV donated $1,000 and Bronx State Sen. Pedro Espada, Jr. came out to watch part of the six-team tournament that included 84 participants ranging in age from 8 to 21 years old.

Montgomery’s effort may seem small in comparison to the enormity of the problem in the Bronx, but experts who study the effects of violence on children say grassroots programs can make a crucial difference. Jim Garbarino, a psychology professor at Loyola University and author of “Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them,” said exposure to community violence can be associated with mental health and behavioral issues if children do not have an outlet to process the trauma.

“Any of the normalizing experiences of childhood adolescence can help,” Garbarino said, “after-school activities, sports, going to church, any of those positive experiences.”

According to Garbarino, one of the biggest distinctions in a child’s ability to cope with violence is the amount he is exposed to. It is easier for a child to rebound from a single incident of violence than from an ongoing pattern in the community.

But violence is hard to avoid in Montgomery’s neighborhood. At 6 p.m. on Oct. 11, police responded to a report of a 21-year-old man being shot multiple times on Morris Avenue, around the corner from Montgomery’s apartment on Walton. Alfonso McClinton was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Barnabas Hospital. Just before 9 p.m., 17 days later, 26-year-old Eric McMillian was also found on Morris, with gunshot wounds in his head and torso. He was dead before he made it to Bronx Lebanon Hospital.

“It’s difficult up here,” Montgomery said, as she sat at her desk in her living room last month. Although the heat is on, she wears layers: a maroon track jacket with yellow block lettering for Cardinal Hayes High School, where her 14-year-old son Tajae attended before it became too expensive (he now attends John F. Kennedy); navy blue sweatpants, and thick socks. All that’s missing is a winter hat to top off her cropped brunette coif. She’s restless, fidgeting in her computer chair. Her left foot squirms. “I want to say stop the violence because we shouldn’t have shooting like that. We shouldn’t have it in broad daylight in front of kids and all, and it’s not fair if you can’t walk the streets. You shouldn’t be a prisoner in your own house.”

Montgomery stops. Her large, dark brown eyes glaze over, and her toothy smile fades. She’s conflicted.

“But this history of the person who got killed, it’s not a good history,” she said of McClinton. “He’s known by cops. Do you defend somebody like that or do you defend the cause? It’s very difficult.”

Montgomery isn’t a stranger to violence. Growing up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, she said she witnessed bodies with guts spilling out, “like liver in a supermarket,” tumbling onto the street. She used sports to escape.

Her hair braided in pigtails, she ran track with the boys at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School – the 50-yard dash, the 100-yard dash and relays. She advanced to the semifinals in the Colgate Women’s Games, now the nation’s largest amateur track series. She is in the process of training eight girls to try and participate in the same series this month, including Genisis Millan, 12, who lives five floors down in Montgomery’s building.

“Track makes me feel good,” Genisis said. “When I tell people that I do track, it makes me feel like I’m doing something with my life and not just sitting around.” She has trained with Montgomery for about four years. She said sometimes they run laps at Bronx Community College. On other days, they do hall-length sprints in their building or hustle up and down the stairs. “It keeps me motivated,” she said.

Montgomery ran for a different reason.

“I ran to get away from trouble,” Montgomery said. “I ran to get out of trouble. I ran from seeing things, so it was running I liked. I always ran to the store, ran to school, so I just kept running.”

She easily could have gotten wrapped up in the wrong crowd. Montgomery had friends who turned to the street, but she went in the opposite direction. She decided to move to the Bronx in the 1990s and began working for Xerox in the World Trade Center, before switching to work for a package delivery service. When Tajae was little, Montgomery decided to use the very outlet that helped her cope with her unstable childhood to help with children in the community: sports.

“I’m a sports person,” Montgomery said. “We watch football; we watch baseball; we go to the games. It’s something I like. You work with something you enjoy working with.”

Montgomery has lived in her current Fordham Bedford Housing apartment for about eight years, and it reflects her passion for her work. Her back closet overflows with bases, uniforms, sneakers and exercise mats. Her bathroom includes toiletries, baseball bats, basketballs and food coolers.

On the walls hang photo collages of the children in her program. In one they’re at a boxing ring in Brooklyn, in another at a Knicks game, and there’s a large black-and-white picture of one group in track shirts.

Verna Montgomery standing in front of her certificates of merit.

Verna Montgomery standing in front of her certificates of merit. Photo: Amara Grautski

There are also reminders of her accolades throughout the years, including a “certificate of merit” from the United Cerebral Palsy Association of New York State for participating in a 1999 jamboree. Others like it and an expired Little League umpire license are mounted above her computer. But she views her greatest accomplishment as the effect she has had on children who may have strayed from the right path. The children she guided to the football field or the basketball court instead of letting them wander to the uncertainty of the street.

Some who become derailed still return. Manny Reyes, 17, had trained three times a week with the U.B.A. track league a year ago before he decided to stop. Reyes began acting out; his mother thought he was too much to handle and asked him to leave. He moved in with his father in Hunts Point, then in with his girlfriend’s mother, before moving back home.

“Ever since I got out, I’ve been doing the wrong things and making the wrong choices,” Reyes said of leaving Montgomery’s program. He decided to join her indoor basketball league this winter. “I just came back not too long ago, and I started being with Verna again and my life’s getting actually better.”

Montgomery knows she won’t have that effect on every child, but the ones she helps make her financial sacrifices worth it. Montgomery has sent her U.B.A. Sports Club 4 Kids proposal out to politicians and community members in the hopes of getting more financial backing for her program, but her packet hasn’t yet drawn any contributors. Councilman Fernando Cabrera sent a return letter asking for more information about how U.B.A. reaches out to the community. Montgomery continues to attend committee meetings, like the one at her local police precinct, to try and solicit food and beverage donations. But the non-profit has taken a toll on her bank account.

“Really, I lost,” Montgomery said, sounding somewhat defeated. In 2009, Bronx Assemblyman Nelson Castro had promised he would donate $5,000 to her program, and although Montgomery said she filled out the proper paperwork, the donation never came through. Castro said he had allocated funds for Montgomery to receive a legislative grant, but the New York State Office of Children and Family Services never received additional information from her when the office had requested it in September 2009.

“In 2009, she should have gotten the money and if she didn’t it was because of her own negligence,” said Castro, whose 13-year-old son Christopher played in Montgomery’s baseball league last summer. On Sept. 15, 2010, the funding was lost when Governor David Paterson vetoed the re-appropriation of last year’s grants.

Montgomery insisted she provided the last bit of information that was asked of her. “We had a meeting at his office,” Montgomery said of Castro. “He said the only thing that was missing was my phone number.”

The largest amount Montgomery has received was $2,000 from New Yankee Stadium Community Benefits, Inc. in May. Still, Montgomery tries to remain positive. “But I’m not losing, because I’m gaining in heart. So I’m not looking at it like I’m losing.”

When she takes a group to watch the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden and every child but one has money for food, it’s another $6 out of Montgomery’s pocket. And so far many parents haven’t been that supportive with their donations or time.

One who has is China Montilla, Genisis’ 33-year-old mother. She used to assist Montgomery with the track league before she gave birth to her son Alays, now 1. Montilla hopes to become more involved again.

“She does what she has to do for the kids,” Montilla said of Montgomery. “A lot of parents that want to drop off the kids; they don’t seem to pay for the program. We’re not a babysitting corps here. This is not a babysitting thing. We’re trying to get your kids to be healthy, active and, on top of that, give them something to do not being in the corner smoking weed.”

Montilla doesn’t think the $50 fee is expensive. She believes for the services Montgomery provides, it’s worth it.

“She does a lot of things for these kids out of her pocket. She’s doing it by herself, but people don’t see that. And the fact that she’s handicapped and does all of this…,” Montilla’s voice trails off.

As vocal as Montgomery is about violence prevention, she’s just as reserved when it comes to discussing her physical problems.

On Aug. 21, 2001, Montgomery slipped on a wet day inside the delivery truck in which she worked. While carrying a package, she stepped with her right foot but lost her gripping as she fell, injuring the left side of her body. She felt excruciating pain from her hip down to her toes, but the extent of the damage went unnoticed by doctors for years.

In 2006, she had her first of eight surgeries. According to Montgomery, her doctor told her she has tarsal tunnel syndrome, the compression of the tibial nerve, in her left foot, as well as a bone infection. A suggested option was amputation.

The usually permanent smile on Montgomery’s face diminishes when she talks about her prognosis. When asked about it, she stares blankly at the TV, but it’s not on. The autumnal cold only makes it more painful, she said. To compensate she always wears layers. She’s not ready to lose her foot.

“I love the kids too much,” Montgomery said. Amputation would mean losing her chance to spend time with the children. Although she gives back through her non-profit, it is also what keeps her going. She knows she has a job to do. “I think if I didn’t have this, I’d be in a very, very deep depression.”

Montgomery has been on worker’s compensation and disability since her fall and hasn’t had another job. She’s been deemed a “high-risk” worker because of her injury, she said. Still, Montgomery presses on. She knows what can happen when she’s not an influence in children’s lives.

About a year ago, Montgomery had a set of twins enroll in her basketball program. One of the two was particularly obnoxious and rude. She couldn’t deal with it anymore. Both children ended up leaving the program.

“Now one of them has a record, and he has to report in to a parole officer,” Montgomery said. “This year when I saw him, he said to me, ‘Wow, Ms. Verna, I should’ve stayed with you. I probably wouldn’t have gotten in trouble.’ ” He was 12 years old.

A brief wave of guilt may have hit Montgomery, but she tilts her head back and gazes toward the collection of merit certificates – the reminders of all she has done for the Bronx – hanging on her wall.

“I have to look around me and really see all that I’ve accomplished,” she said. “I’ve got a lot to lose.”

Whether she slows down or not, Montgomery has already left her mark on the community. She certainly has had an impact on 15-year-old Markis Faucette, and Markis in turn has on his friend Paul Eromosele, 13. Markis decided to use what Montgomery taught him and pay it forward.

Paul was headed for trouble. His teachers told him he could not be a professional athlete unless he brought his marks up, but regardless, Paul was still failing his classes in the sixth grade at M.S. 279. The aspiring football player who often towered over his classmates never thought much of his height advantage until he met Markis.

Jon Warchol, Paul Eromosele, Markis Faucette and Evraldo Benros (from left to right) standing in the gymnasium at M.S. 447. Warchol and Benros, who have mentored Faucette, are physical education teachers at the school. Photo: Amara Grautski

Jon Warchol, Paul Eromosele, Markis Faucette and Evraldo Benros (from left to right) standing in the gymnasium at M.S. 447. Warchol and Benros, who have mentored Faucette, are physical education teachers at the school. Photo: Amara Grautski

Markis was two years older and a basketball lover who had spent a few years playing in Montgomery’s sports program. A couple years ago, he convinced Paul to give shooting hoops a try, and the now 5-foot-11-inch 13-year-old is hooked and plays for his middle school’s team. Paul loves to follow the Oklahoma City Thunder, especially the team’s star and his favorite player Kevin Durant. He wants to be a power forward in the NBA and credits his increased involvement in sports for his turnaround.

“Sports basically helped me express myself and have fun,” Paul said. “My parents thought that I probably got in trouble, that’s why I started doing my work, but I told them actually it was sports and that sports was changing me. And now they’re actually supporting me to do what I want to do.”

Now in eighth grade, Paul is currently helping Markis to establish the Young Boyz Basketball League. Inspired by Montgomery and her message to keep children away from violence, Markis is in the process of finalizing his own sports program with her guidance.

One of the underlying themes of the program, Paul said, is to show people who might be involved with gangs that they don’t have to hate one another. He hopes that children and teens from different parts of the Bronx will realize they actually get along. Paul doesn’t worry anymore about personally getting wrapped up in gangs, but he does worry about his friends and classmates.

Violence is prevalent, even at a young age. Members of the Latin King Goonies were allegedly behind the Oct 3. anti-gay hate crimes in the Bronx. Five of the 11 initial suspects were only teenagers. (Four of the five were later cleared of charges.)

“I worry about the people that surround me, because people are killing people,” Paul said. “I think if they had something in the community that actually changed them, it could change everything that’s going on.”

Markis’s league was created last summer when he produced his first successful basketball tournament. On Aug. 21, he gathered 64 people of all ages to play at Grand Park in the Fordham area of the Bronx. His former basketball coach Jon Warchol contributed trophies, Markis’s grandfather chipped in for uniforms, and Councilman Fernando Cabrera donated $250.

“He was actually surprised because of my age,” Markis said of Cabrera’s reaction to his financial request. “He said there are no other 15-year-old boys trying to do something like this.”

This winter, Markis hopes to have 64 participants again for an indoor league and has been negotiating gym time at M.S. 447. But to try and receive funding, politicians and Montgomery both advised Markis to start the paperwork to create his own non-profit. Legally, he has to be 18 to do that so he is asking his mother for help. “I see myself doing more,” Markis said. He has an idea for a year-round program. “Soon I’m going to do a fitness club with running and basketball drills.”

Montgomery has a vision of her own. On a November night, she gingerly makes her way out of her apartment and down the street to enter 2287-89 Jerome Ave. To the naked eye, the address is the home to the Liberty Dollar Super Market. But as Montgomery slowly makes her way across the red-and-white tiled floor, she doesn’t see aisles of paper products and candles. She sees potential.

The two-floor building is Montgomery’s dream location for her program’s home base. The first floor could be space for an after-school program, and the top floor could house a gymnasium. Aside from the fact that the bottom floor is very much occupied by the dollar store, she said the monthly rent is out of reach. But her goal keeps her focused and her mind off of her injury.

After moving up and down the aisles, Montgomery exits the store. She stands on the sidewalk, gazing up at the building one more time. Her imaginative juices are still flowing.

“I just need somebody to look at my dream,” Montgomery said wistfully. “I need somebody to say, ‘Here, I’m going to invest and help her. I think what she’s doing is cool.’ ”

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