The Tonsler Park Recreation Center is busy at 4:30pm on a Wednesday. The long, L-shaped main room bustles with games of pool and chess, people coming and going past the old school Ms. Pac-Man game and the foosball table. Adults watch the T.V. on the wall, or sit and talk in small groups. You get the sense many are just killing time on a cold evening in the neighborhood.
Wes Bellamy isn’t killing time, he’s chasing it. Because even though he just arrived, he has to leave again to track down a girl in his after-school program, which officially starts at 4pm but which really starts when he gets all of the kids together. After passing some instructions to one of the older kids, he heads through the crowd out to the parking lot, past his trademark Dodge Charger, getting instead into an old minivan. Bellamy moves like an athlete, which he is. But he uses his spacial awareness and vision like a politician, timing his smiles, waves, and winks to make sure everyone gets a piece of him.
Then he’s gone, driving the couple blocks from the rec center over to the Sixth Street housing project, hopping out with the van still running, and knocking on an apartment door. There’s no answer and no one outside has seen the girl, so Bellamy gets back to the van and heads back to the rec center, no sign of irritation on his face. Inside, in a small room separated from the rest of the building by a sliding plastic wall, seven young men, ranging in age from 4 to 23, are getting ready to box.
Coach Tyrone and Coach Norman, Bellamy’s volunteer helpers, wrap hands with athletic tape, pull on gloves, and point out untied shoelaces. After stretching and doing jumping jacks, the kids divide into groups to work on shadowboxing. The room is small, 10′ x 20′ at most, and the kids’ efforts soon render the windows too foggy to see through. Most nights 12 or more kids show up, but even with only half that number—plus the coaches, a UVA student who’s helping out, not to mention the body bag and two speed bags—the room is crowded to the point of absurdity.
Bellamy has organized a step dance class for girls that takes place at the same time, but they’ve been forced out of the conference room they usually use to make way for a city planning meeting. The search is on for a space to practice, but until then, the girls fight for room in the crowded main hall, while the boys jab and faint in tightly circumscribed circles in the back room.
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The program is called HYPE, Helping Young People Evolve, and when it began on December 7, 2011 it was just Bellamy, some boxing gloves, and a punching bag. There are now 16 boys and seven girls who meet four days a week. At 26, Bellamy is only a few years older than the oldest of the boxers, but even so, he’s more than just a coach to these kids; he’s also a driver and a disciplinarian, a teacher and a mentor, sometimes a big brother, sometimes a parent.
“I was just like these kids,” he says. “I know what it’s like to not have things. I know what it’s like to have those surrogate fathers.”
The goal of HYPE is to use boxing and step dancing to instill discipline in young people, to help them grow and learn respect for themselves and for others. It’s open to all of the city’s children, but things in this world being what they are, the kids in HYPE all come from families below the poverty line and all of them are black.
When the training session is over, equipment put away, snacks distributed, one of the younger boys in the HYPE program runs over to Bellamy, interrupting our conversation to ask a question.
“Say excuse me,” Bellamy says, before telling the boy to turn around and try again. He walks a few steps, then comes back, says excuse me, and asks his question.
“Do you know him?” Bellamy asks, pointing to me.
“No,” the boy says.
And then, following Bellamy’s instructions, he holds out his hand and introduces himself. Bellamy places a large hand on the boy’s tiny head.
“You’ve worked hard,” he says. “And I’m proud of you.”