More than 60 enthralled children Thursday night gathered around Wes Unseld at the Family Life Center of Shiloh Baptist Church as he and another former Bullets basketball player, Phil Chenier, helped inaugurate the center's Boys and Girls Club.
Unseld shared professional secrets and some basic tips with his mostly waist-high audience during a high-speed basketball clinic. It was the first activity of the center, sponsored jointly by the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington and the church.
The new recreational program, which will be permanently supervised by Chenier, executive director of the club, and Mae King, director of the Family Life Center, operates out of the year-old, gleaming facility at 1500 Ninth St. NW, built with contributions from the Shiloh congregation. The club will provide 30 hours a week of community activities for the children of Shaw.
"The important thing about this center is that it's in an area where it can benefit the most people," Unseld said, his eyes fixed on the basketball a boy was trying to dribble. "This program is supposed to be for children, true, but it ends up benefiting the whole family."
Eric Dorsey, 11, who travels from District Heights with his mother to attend the church and the center's activities, couldn't have been happier with the new club. "I learned about the different ways you can pass a ball," he said after the clinic. "I had a good time."
The Family Life Center Boys and Girls Club is the newest of seven branches of Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Washington Inc., a local affiliate of Boys Clubs of America. It is the third branch in the District. Two others are in Northern Virginia and two in Maryland.
Shiloh's pastor, the Rev. Henry C. Gregory III, talked about how the idea for the joint effort was born. "We are making a conscious effort to meet the needs of people of all ages," he said, "and we found that the Boys and Girls Clubs organization could bring the human and financial resources, and the experience of working with children, that could add to our programs with neighborhood youth."
At the same time that Gregory was looking for ways to expand the family center's program, the Boys and Girls Clubs regional board of directors was seeking a larger home for its center in Shaw, previously housed in the basement of the 10th Street Baptist Church. The decision to combine their efforts led to a "unique marriage," in the words of Archie Avedisian executive vice president of the area's clubs.
The clubs' directors were especially concerned that one of their seven area centers remain in Shaw, where it can provide alternatives for youth in a neighborhood where last summer's teen-age unemployment stood at 49 percent.
Avedisian said the new center hopes to provide a full range of services for about a thousand neighborhood children and teen-agers. The center will offer workshops on a range of subjects, from job development training to racquetball, weekdays from 3 to 9 p.m.
The Family Life Center's kitchen will be used for nutrition counseling and a special course in professional cooking. On Mondays and Wednesdays, the club will use the Shaw Junior High School swimmming pool for lessons.
Gregory, dressed in a three-piece suit and gym shoes, watched as Chenier and Unseld guided the crowd of attentive kids through the basics of basketball.
"In the game of basketball you aim with your feet. They're like your rifle sight," he told his listeners before he dazzled them with his 90-foot chest pass.
For Steve Martin, a board member of a local branch in Maryland, the basketball training is a means to an end. "The greatest asset to this program is Phil Chenier," he said, watching him handle the ball.
"He's providing a role model to identify with," Martin added. "Before the center started, these kids had to go way out of the area to get into anything but trouble. It's so important to the kids here to know that the city is not moving away from them."