The sun is setting on a recent Tuesday, and although students are well into summer break, William Wirt Middle School in Riverdale buzzes with activity. In one corner of the school’s gymnasium, two boys play a video game on a flat-screen television. Across the floor, another boy sets up pieces to a board game while other children skateboard or simply run from side to side.
Then there are those lucky few who arrived early enough to shoot around with Maryland women’s basketball player Alyssa Thomas, a two-time all-American and a potential national player of the year candidate entering her senior season.
But on this and many other nights over the past few months, Thomas has been more of a big sister to neighborhood kids who are part of the Prince George’s County Safe Summer program. Thomas is the oldest of three siblings, so she’s accustomed to looking after younger children, but this program affords her as well as teammates Alicia DeVaughn and Laurin Mincy an opportunity to contribute to their community on a larger scale.
“It’s very rewarding,” said DeVaughn, who starts at center for the Terrapins. “Where I’m from we don’t have late-night summer camps. I thought this was unique and very different because a lot of kids are out, and who knows what they’re doing this late at night.”
On this particular evening, the native of West Palm Beach, Fla., has volunteered her time when she originally was not scheduled to work. At 6 feet 4, DeVaughn towers over the children, but they don’t back away. Several young boys instead approach to ask her to play basketball.
At the other end of the court, Thomas is practicing a trick shot, trying to get the ball through the hoop on one bounce. One boy helps Thomas by retrieving a miss, and she takes a break to provide him and fellow attendees with a basketball pointer or two.
“It’s just a great way to give back, to get out here and to be able to play with the kids,” Thomas said. “They love that type of stuff, especially when they’re able to beat you.”
Children begin arriving at roughly 7 p.m., and the school — about a 10-minute drive from Maryland’s campus — remains open until midnight. Others don’t get there until closer to 10, when they are provided boxed snacks. Some nights they roller skate or play laser tag, but regardless of the activity, there’s always some enticement attracting dozens of teens and pre-teens in surrounding communities back to William Wirt.
Similar scenes have been unfolding at nearly two dozen other locations in Prince George’s County since June 21, and will through Aug. 10. Those schools and community centers also provide adult supervision and a safe place for kids of all ages to gather inside as well as a police presence outside.
“I think it’s way more gratifying for [the players] because they can actually see the results of being here first-hand,” said Keith Stewart, one of the organizers of Safe Summer at William Wirt.
DeVaughn and Mincy, who will be a redshirt junior in the fall, have participated in the program for three and two years, respectively. Thomas, meantime, is taking part for the first time after learning about it through her teammates. None of the players had previous formal training working with children, but all said they were comfortable from the start.
Safe Summer has become somewhat of a tradition for the Maryland women’s program after former players such as Lynetta Kizer and Kim Rodgers encouraged younger teammates to join. Kizer graduated two years ago and since has been spending her summers in the WNBA, but Rodgers continues to assist Stewart and other mentors within the program.
“It’s keeping the kids away from drugs, gangs and violence,” Stewart said. “The Maryland players, they’ve been very supportive not only of just the program but for the kids in the community as well. The kids, they usually only see the players on TV or hear about them in the newspapers, but they get to see them here outside of the cameras.”