Football Offers Healing, Hope

By Stephen Lowman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 10, 2008

"Straighten the line up! Straighten the line up!" Coach Peedy yells at 3 p.m. as two dozen thirsty football stars-in-training mob the bleachers for some water.

It is one of several well-deserved breaks for the Benning Terrace Soldiers this afternoon. The players, ages 5 to 16, have spent the past three hours learning positions, honing passing skills and conditioning their muscles on this field, behind the Benning Terrace public housing complex in Southeast Washington. Under the leadership of Curtis Monroe, 33, known to the players as Coach Peedy, and Charles Penny, 30, they have been here every Saturday since the second week of March and will continue through the summer, with practices increasing to three and four times a week after school lets out.

Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) plans to visit the Soldiers' home field Tuesday as part of a tour of the Benning Terrace Recreation Center. He will see where and how this all-volunteer youth football program plays: on a patchy field with two sets of sagging bleachers for spectators and no restrooms for the visiting team (they make use of Popeye's facilities a mile up, on Benning Road).

On March 6, in the basement of the First Rock Baptist Church, steps away from Benning Terrace, the Washington Interfaith Network, a community advocacy group, and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development announced plans to revitalize the broader Benning Heights area. Fenty told the crowd that he was committed to renovating the Fletcher-Johnson Education Center, building affordable housing and constructing a cultural arts and full-service recreation center.

Fenty focused on Benning Terrace during his mayoral campaign, promising to budget money for community programs. As a D.C. Council member, he attended the 2006 memorial service of 17-year-old Cynthia Gray, slain in Benning Terrace while carrying her infant godson. She was able to save the baby before she died by placing him under a car when shots were being fired. The crime provoked much soul-searching and calls for an end to the violence so familiar to Benning Terrace residents.

The Soldiers' coaches remember Gray. Before her death, she was a cheerleader for the team.

Activities such as the football program "keep the violence down, gives the kids something to do and bring the community together," said Penny, who refers to the field as a safe zone. Benning Terrace feels safer to Penny than just a few years ago and, indeed, the number of violent attacks in the community have decreased since Gray's death. Other crimes such as theft and vandalism remain a persistent problem.

"If the kids have nothing to do, they go destroy things," Penny said.

The football field is adjacent to the Benning Terrace Recreation Center. This small space is operated by the D.C. Housing Authority and is used primarily for after-school programs.

Carl Turner Sr., 35, joined the recreation center in February. Along with two staff members and a group of volunteers, he runs the Reaching Inside for Self-Esteem after-school program, which provides kids with food, homework help, and weekly lessons in art and dance. It did not take Turner long to realize the space and resources were inadequate.

"It lacks the stuff that keeps kids active and mobile," Turner said. "There are no pool tables or a basketball court, the things that give kids something to do."

Coleman Milling, a senior organizer with WIN who has been working with the mayor's office, said: "The [mayor's] tour will help reinforce that we have 395 young people under the age of 18 living in Benning Terrace, and the rec center is the size of a living room."

The revitalization effort is in its early stages and leaders do not expect to break ground on the recreation and cultural centers for at least two years. In the meantime, Milling said he hopes that construction on a new football field can begin this year.

Around 4 p.m., Monroe and Penny lead the players off the field that 10 years ago they say was littered with trash -- mattresses, tires and abandoned bikes. The two cleaned it up and, with help from the D.C. Housing Authority and the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, started the football program. The coaches say a new field cannot come soon enough.

Monroe said promises of improvement to Benning Terrace have been broken before: "If you tell a child something and you don't hold up to your part, they are going to remember.'

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