‘Waiting for Superman’? He works in East Durham

Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club Executive Director Joshua Dorsette and two Club children

It’s a little after 6 p.m. on a Tuesday, and the “thwhack, thwhack” of basketballs against backboards and floorboards echoes from the open doors of the gym at The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club in Durham, North Carolina.

Executive Director Joshua Dorsette’s head is under the hood of a staff member’s car, repairing the trouble that won’t let her drive home.

As he pulls out the shiny broken headlamp, a passerby asks, “Do you know how to do everything, Mr. Dorsette?”

“A little,” the 32-year-old allows.

The Salvation Army has been serving Durham youth for more than a century – in its East Durham location at Liberty and North Alston since 1968.

When Joshua Dorsette took the helm of the Club in 2008, at the age of 28, he was stepping into big shoes. His predecessor, Executive Director Charles Lyons, had served at the Club in one capacity or another for two decades. Mr. Lyons’ predecessor, Emanuel Croslan, had been Executive Director for 20 years. Both men were beloved father figures in a neighborhood that ran short on dads. Lyons had endorsed Dorsette, who was his protégé as a student intern, and you might have thought that would be enough.

Single mom, jailed dad … saved by the Clubs himself

Dorsette was young, and even though he’d just finished a degree at North Carolina Central University, he was from out of town. He started his life in public housing in High Point, one of two sons of a mother who had been abandoned by her substance-abusing husband. His father was in prison during most of his childhood, so, like many of the children he serves, “I know how it feels not to have a dad there on Father and Son Day.”

To make her own success, his mother drove a morning bus route, went to community college classes to train for dental assisting, drove an afternoon bus route, then ran her own cosmetology practice. That meant that if the boys wanted to see their mom, they rode her bus. And the older they got, the more opportunities they had to get in trouble after school. That’s where the Boys & Girls Clubs came in.

Mr. Dorsette keeps a couple of his trophies from Club youth sports on top of his desk: One-on-One Champ, High Point University Basketball Camp, 1996; Midget Baseball Champs, National Division, Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club, 1988. The trophies remind him, and Club kids, that he has been where they live.

As intern, surprising lessons about city’s gangs

He got to know Durham during a series of undergraduate internships, including one at the Club, and his knowledge was exactly the kind of knowledge anyone would need to work in the Club’s location. He knew which gangs controlled which streets. He understood that gangs were lucrative, illegal businesses that were fundamentally uninterested in creating trouble for themselves with the law. During one internship, he learned that an OG in the neighborhood had promised one of its members full scholarship support for a business degree in order to make sure the gang had the financial skills it needed for its enterprises.

So was it because of his knowledge that it happened? Because he refused to engage in gang culture? Because joined The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club, which helps youth to develop the skills and the determination not to join gangs?

Mr. Dorsette’s first day on the job was a Thursday. Day two, a Friday, he went after work to celebrate his brother’s graduation fromNorth Carolina Central University. On the way home, he was double-teamed on the freeway by a two-vehicle drive-by team. The doctors at Duke said that if the bullet had hit him one inch further to the left, he would have died. As it is, the scar barely marks his warm brown skin. He didn’t press charges, in order not to further inflame whatever issue had set the bullets flying.

On Monday, he was back at work.

Active, well-ordered days for Club kids

Four years later, the Club is a vibrant mix that reflects its surrounding neighborhood: African-American and Hispanic, with an occasional Caucasian kid thrown in. Almost all are at-risk. The few who don’t live nearby are kids who used to live nearby, who keep coming because they want to be there. They enjoy a well-ordered afternoon, in staff-led teams organized by age group: snacks from the Food Bank of Eastern North Carolina; homework time, with tutors as needed; free play in a recreation room stocked with ping pong, pool, Xbox Kinect and Wii, board games and more; computer lab time; and supervised active recreation, “because most kids don’t get PE in schools anymore,” Mr. Dorsette says.

Mr. Dorsette is a big believer in keeping kids moving – physically and forward in life. The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club, like most Boys & Girls Clubs, doesn’t have the luxury of beginning with a quality birth-to-5 preschool and then watching kids who’ve received optimal early childhood nurturing grow into life success.

Instead, it meets kids wherever they are, and helps them grow from that point forward. So the Club has “discovered” a Latino youth who was truant from middle school – and had been for two years – helped him catch up through an on-line curriculum and returned him to high school on schedule. It “found” an African-American high school freshman who was trying to be father to his younger siblings after both parents had abandoned the family, and took him from a 0.9 GPA to junior college.

Of course many children enter the Club at age 6, as soon as they are eligible for its $10 a year after school program. And many drift away after middle school, as high school team sports and after school activities become more exciting than even the chance to learn leadership skills as Junior Staff.

Consistent success at school and in life

Still, of 270 members last academic year …

  • All but one progressed to the next grade
  • 19 percent achieved A/B honors for at least 3 academic quarters
  • All seniors graduated and continued to college or employment

In a late September opinion piece, Bloomberg writer Jonathan Alter pointed out that a quarter of all at-risk kids in the United States are in Boys & Girls Clubs after school:

“Venture capitalists and bankers worried about this future workforce have invested in education reform – ideas like charter schools … The good news, for businesses and for poor communities, is that Boys & Girls Clubs and other proven models are quietly helping more poor kids … They need to be seen as important and cutting-edge investments in the future.”

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America are just beginning to develop, as a national organization, the kind of in-depth data tools that will allow them, as a national organization, to convince people how successful they actually are in youth development. The Formula for Impact that is being rolled out will give Clubs the kind of outcome- and data-driven reporting that “social venture” donors are increasingly demanding.

From pro basketball camps to quinceañeras

In the meantime, about a third of the Durham Salvation Army Club’s members are at its after school on any given day. Another hundred or so kids and adults are playing sports in the evening or over the weekend. The Club is home to wide range of community activities, from weddings to the training camp for a brand-new pro basketball club (the Carolina Jaguars) to quinceañeras, the formal Latin American 15th birthday party where relatives from as far as Central America travel to The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club gym to see their family’s little princess become a young lady.

But his responsibilities at the Club are, and he believes will always be, his most important career role.

“When I was working on my master’s degree, one of the kids asked me, ‘Does this mean that you’re going to leave the Club?’ and I said, ‘Maybe, someday.’ And he said, ‘If you leave the Club, we’re probably going to quit school.’

“To hear a 12-year-old say that and be dead serious … you realize we are big brothers and uncles and in some cases, dads to these kids. We cannot make silly decisions about how we use our time.”

Volunteers and staff are popping in and out; parents arrive with transportation payments and questions about next week’s trip; a Spanish-speaking parent brings a child with her to translate.

Between Club leadership, finding and supporting volunteers, negotiating solutions for whatever kid is having problems that particular morning at their school, coaching the Club’s AAU basketball team (2010 USSSA state champs, 2011 Powerade state champs, and in the final 16 competing for the 2011 national AAU championship) … Mr. Dorsette is one of those people who does — as people like to say in the world of education — “whatever it takes” to help a neighborhood’s worth of children succeed.

Or, as one of our Latin American mothers said about him:

“He’s just like the father of a very large family.”

About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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