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SOUTH-CENTRAL : Sports: A 'Vaccine' for Inner-City Woes?

November 20, 1994|ENRIQUE LAVIN

Five-time world karate champion Geoff Thompson traveled the world in search of a serum that will promote self-esteem, foster teamwork and give inner-city youngsters hope for the future. The Englishman says Los Angeles is the place to find it.

Thompson and a group of 16 youths from Manchester, England, came to South-Central to learn how sports programs help inner-city youths stay away from drugs and crime.

"What most impressed me in my visit here is that it really did bring home the role of sports," Thompson said. By comparison, he said, the inner cities in England don't have many youth sports programs.

During a weeklong visit, the British youths toured Muir Middle School's youth development program, the Watts Friendship Sports League at Algin Sutton Park, and Lanterman High School, where area youngsters from Kids-in-Sports played a friendly match of football--as they call soccer in Britain--for their guests.

The youths were part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by a nonprofit organization that Thompson heads in England called Youth Charter for Sport, the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles and First AME Church.

"The purpose of the sports cultural exchange was to see how sport is making an impact in an area afflicted by the riots, and in areas that didn't have sports opportunities offered to kids before," said Keith Cruickshank, director of grants and programs for the athletic foundation.

The cultural exchange between underprivileged youths of Manchester and Los Angeles began last year through the corporate sponsorship of British Airways. Considered one of the most volatile cities of Britain, Manchester has suffered much in the same way south Los Angeles has in recent decades.

"But in Manchester, because the problem is not as great as this, there aren't the programs there to steer the kids away from gangs or drugs," said Byron Calame, 21, who is part of the British youth sports delegation and who was visiting the United States for the first time. "The programs here really work, because in Los Angeles there's a need to take the kids off the streets."

"What would they be doing if they didn't have sports?" asked Karen Gribbin, 18, who is studying to be a paramedic in England.

Gribbin answered herself with the firsthand knowledge she has of youths deprived of sports or other after-school activities: "Drugs," she said. "Kids need challenges, and they enjoy sports because they are competing with one another."

Both Calame and Gribbin said they were impressed by the number of sports organizations that exist in the inner city and how much children enjoy participating. "There's a lot of talent in the kids that we saw," Gribbin said.

Learning how, exactly, that sports contribute to the socioeconomic improvement of urban areas is what prompted Thompson to form his sports group.

A product of the inner city, Thompson likes to think of himself as a positive example of how sports can change a life. "I was a very angry child as I was growing up, and I had many opportunities that led to the wrong path," said Thompson, who fought his last karate match in 1986. "My sport kept me away from that."

"Sports," he says, "is not the answer (to urban blight), it's the vaccine."

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