On a warm Friday night, Tonya Moore sat in a hot gym at the Delavan-Grider Community Center, watching as dozens of boys and girls learned the do's and don'ts of basketball.
Down the hall, her 8-year-old son Ervin listened as Brian Dux, the former Canisius College point guard still recovering from a near-fatal car accident, talked about the ups and downs he's faced in life.
For Moore, this unusual mix of basketball training and life skills workshops is an opportunity for her son to get a glimpse at life outside their neighborhood.
“I want him to get engaged, to see what else is out there,” she said. “A lot of kids in our neighborhood never get out of their 10-block radius. Here, they meet new people.”
And Delavan-Grider is just one of three venues in Buffalo and Niagara Falls where kids can do that as part of Game Changers, a year-old initiative sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Administration and local police agencies.
The goal is to reach out to at-risk youth and give them a reason to avoid drugs, gangs and violence.
It's also an opportunity for the DEA, an agency known more for arrests, raids and undercover operations, to establish and build relationships with a community that is often wary of law enforcement.
“We really, truly want to help these young people,” said Dale Kasprzyk, head of the DEA office in Buffalo. “Enforcement is part of the answer to the drug problem, but education and treatment is also part of the answer.”
The lure is basketball, but in return for some top-notch skills development, kids are asked to spend half the night in workshops on everything from team building and personal achievement to drug prevention and conflict resolution.
And with those real-life lectures comes a message that, with the right decisions, anything is possible.
“We want them to realize values are a personal thing,” said Lindsay Bergman, an academic instructor with Game Changers. “Their values don't have to be the same as the person next to them. We want them to be individuals.”
Now in its second summer, the program runs on Friday nights in July and August. Last year, and again this year, it has attracted more than 100 kids 10 to 18 years old at each site.
At least four of the graduating high school seniors who took part last year are now in college.
“It's a great way to connect with kids you can help,” said Medaille basketball coach Mike McDonald, one of the leaders of the program. “Some of these kids don't have a lot of positive role models in their life.”
The idea for Game Changers has its roots in New York City, where the DEA joined others in opening up a Harlem gym on weekend nights during the summer.
Here, the agency took it a step farther by adding workshops and lectures to the mix.
“I'm learning not to get distracted by some of my negative peers,” said Heywood Stitt, 18, a recent high school graduate who plans to attend Medaille next year.
Talk to the kids taking part in Game Changers and you'll hear the same mantra over and over again: Stay focused on your goals, work hard in school and the opportunities will come.
“Keep my grades up and they'll be a better future,” said Alani Jernigan, who just finished eighth grade.
It's no coincidence that the DEA and Buffalo City Hall chose two inner-city community centers – Delavan-Grider and the Belle Center on the West Side – as venues for the program.
Both are in low-income neighborhoods filled with young people looking for a positive outlet in the summer.
“That was a conscious part of the program,” Mayor Byron W. Brown said. “We wanted to reach out to children who are considered at risk.”
The Niagara Falls program is located at the Packard Court Community Center on Pine Avenue.
The program is unusual enough to have attracted a number of sponsors, including the Rotary Club of Buffalo, Kids Escaping Drugs and the Buffalo and Niagara Falls police departments,
For Ron Caruso, a former Rotary Club president, the impetus to get involved came in May of last year when an alleged gang dispute spilled over into a family picnic at Martin Luther King Park.
Investigators say the shooter sprayed the crowd with gunfire – there were more than 100 adults and children in attendance – and fatally wounded one man and injured four others.
“We were looking to help,” Caruso said. “It just seemed like the East Side wasn't getting the attention and care it needed.”
Few people know that as well as Kasprzyk, who spends most of his work day tackling gangs, drugs and violence.
But on this warm Friday night in early July, it was the kids making good decisions who were on his mind, including the four graduates of last summer's program who went on to college.
“That's tangible,” he said. “That's something you can see and feel.”