The Paradise Ramblers will hit the road again this weekend in their familiar, battered VW van with the hole in the roof.
The Ramblers represent Paradise Manor, a low-income housing development in far Northeast Washington. Parents and community supporters, believing sports will help the youths escape another cycle of poverty, finance the teams, midgets and juniors, with bake sales, rummage sales, raffles, personal sacrifice and willpower.
Rent and telephone bills have gone unpaid to sustain a program that is credited with singlehandedly wiping out gang clashes brought on by too many youths in the neighborhood vying for too few playing fields and basketball courts.
"This environment deadens motivation," said Linda Redd, whose son plays for the Ramblers. "My son no longer has to hit the street and join a gang.
"We've got to aim higher than high while they're still young to get them out of here. My son has inspired me to do all I can for the program."
Paula Johnson, a member of the fundraising committee, said her son's school grades had improved since joining the league. "The discipline and competitiveness have sharpened the youngsters' motivations. This is the kind of positive push they all need," she said.
Three years ago as frustrated parents sought a way to end the constant fights over the ball fields and courts, Ramblers coach Alvin Wheeler deliberately ignored programs offered by the city's recreation department and the Metropolitan Police, dismissing them as "makeshift and disorganized."
He said some of the boys in the Paradise Manor had belonged to the boys' clubs and sometimes went weeks without playing a game. Wheeler, a former semi-pro player, wanted his youngsters to play in a well-governed league with experienced officials and defined age and weight classifications. He sought and gained admission to the prestigious, comparatively affluent Capital Beltway League, comprised of boys' clubs in the District, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Paradise Manor now supports teams in two divisions -- the Midgets (9-11) adn the Juniors (11-13) -- but just barely. Getting uniforms is a constant concern, and some of the boys even play without ribs pads or athletic supporters.
J. Maxson Cunningham Jr., league commissioner, said recently that the Paradise club, which will play Gaithersburg this weekend, has "a tough row to hoe" competing with teams with 10 to 15 years of experience and well-established fundraising procedures.
"We've been maintaining a day-to-day existence," said assistant coach Ken Reed. "God knows we've crawled long enough."
Reed said he asked the city's recreation department for equipment last week only to receive a "classic runaround" that resulted in his being told to contact former Washington Redskin Larry Brown. Brown referred Reed back to the recreation department.
Equipment shortages and transportation problems are common. Have they had an adverse effect on team morale? Andre Wooley, 9; Louis Johnson Jr., 11, and a dozen other teammates all had one answer: a resounding "no." Said Rambler Johnson, "We're going to be league champs. Period."
The residents of Paradise Manor admit there is a new spirit.
"We've discovered ourselves as a community," said Nell Roberts. "We're particularly proud of our men who are taking time to guide our boys."
Coaches Wheeler and Reed, who have children too young to qualify for the league, are the heroes of Paradise Manor.
Just about everyone involved in the teams knows that Reed may not be able to pay his rent this month because of the money he has sunk into the Ramblers.
But Reed is not worried. "I know what comes first," he said.