The line of youngsters at Howard University's Burr Gymnasium wound out the door, down the steps and around the corner. It was only 4:30 p.m., Thursday but the youths were anxiously awaiting entrance to the building and the National Youth Sport Program.
There were children of all sizes, races and from diverse neighborhoods. They carried their clothes and equipment in every sort of imaginable container, from plastic bags to small suitcases to gym bags. Some just carried or wore their gym clothes.
The outside scene was one of subtle confusion, but the confusion ended once beyond the front door.
Inside the children proceeded to a table and reported into one of six sports areas - basketball, swimming, gymnastics, judo, dance or track and field. They met their groups in designated areas of the building.
On the way, they were greeted by Sondra Norrell, NYSP program director at Howard. Credit her with the end of the confusion.
Norrell, the assistant athletic director at Howard, has been with the program nine years, and head of it for six. She is also a national evaluator for the program.
She explained that the six-week program is sponsored by the NCAA and the Community Services Administration. It is open to disadvantaged youths between the ages of 10 and 18. The program is free, and all participants must pass a medical examination before beging accepted. About 750 children have enrolled.
The program runs from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday until July 29.The youths are divided into six groups, which they select themselves. Every day they meet with that group for about 45 minutes.
In shifts, they also take showers and receive enrichment sessions on such things as diet, health care, jobs and careers. The evening ends with a hot meal. The first week's dinner was on McDonald's Hereafter, the Mayor's Food Program will take over.
"We have been very successful with the community in getting supplies for the children," Norrell said. "Each one gets a T-shirt, an ID card and a trophy. The last two days we have a culminating activity and awards ceremony. And it gets bigger every year.
She also explained that the program was funded for 600 youngsters but by obtaining free food, Howard has been able to accept 750.
In the main gym, 185 were assembled for gymnastics practice. "This is our largest group," Norrell said. "Nadia and Olga started it."
The children are sprawled all over the floor, exercising. The only noise comes from their counting and clapping to keep pace. After the exercises, they form smaller groups to work on various pieces of equipment.
Some of the gymnastics intructors came through the program themselves, and now are working to support it.
"They were teaching us everything," said Kathy Thomas, a 17-year-old volunteer, "And after we learned, we wanted to help the others," she added, pausing to ask a youngster to spit out her gum. "and they appreciate it."
Gentle discipline is a big a part of the program. The 60 paid counselors and 12 volunteeers manage to keep the children in line.
"It's not just a recreation program," Norrell said. "We have a very professional staff. It is very structured. And the fact that we have a 70 per cent returnee rate says something for the program.
Diane Bushrod, a seven-year veteran of the program, agreed. "I like to stay in shape," she said, practicing layups in the auxiliary gym downstairs. "And this is a good way to do it. You can learn the basics and have fun. That's why I keep coming back," she concluded.
In a building about a block away, other children were dancing.
Twelve-year-old Adrian Owens likes the NYSP because, "they teach you good things, like all kinds of dances and routines and about your skin and health and stuff."
Adrian also took part in the winter program, which concentrates on field tips and enrichment sessions.
Walking back to the main gym, one passes the track, where about 40 youths are running laps. "These are the didicated ones," Norrell said. "It's much easier and cooler to enroll in swimming.
The pool proves her right. About 150 youngsters are crowded into the water, enjoying some free swim time before instructions begin. In 10 seconds the pool was cleared, and the charges ready for lessons.
Meanwhile, upstairs, other kinds of lessons were taking place. The enrichment session concerned nutrition, and the students were sampling granola as an alternative to candy bars.
Reviewing the program, Norrell said, "We are able to reach a large number of the youths and help them continue their lives in an upward direction.
"We give them everything that we have and hope that it will help them select what's right for them."