HAMPTON, Va. (AP) — Wilton Patrick's desire to help kids began in the 1970s when he was teenager working as a summer counselor for the Boys and Girls Club of the Virginia Peninsula. It was nurtured during a decade as a teaching assistant with An Achievable Dream.

After eight years in the Army, 25 at the Newport News shipyard and eight with a computer company, Patrick, known to his friends as W.L., wants to spend even more time helping kids when he soon retires. Four years ago, Patrick founded the 50 Strong program he and four friends from his youth conduct each Sunday at the YH Thomas Community Center gymnasium in Hampton.

The cozy gym at the former middle school near Rip Rap Road is open from 4-7 p.m. for pickup games, and the emphasis is on those ages 13 to 17, though kids of other ages participate. As a bonus, the players get instruction from one of the Peninsula's all-time basketball greats, former Hampton High and N.C. State standout Art Jones.

A more important focus of Patrick and his friends is to teach the kids life lessons along with the hoops.

"Basketball is the hook, but 50 Strong is a great mentorship program," said Quentin Jackson, an administrator with a college in Northern Virginia, who drives back to Hampton each weekend to assist longtime friend Patrick. "At 50 Strong (the kids) are around men and get to see how to be a man and what does a man look like."

Patrick said, "I have a passion for kids. I guess I've always loved their energy, innocence and enthusiasm.

"Kids have more influences today than we did in the '70s, but they're pretty much the same. Kids want to do the right thing and please you."

Patrick named the organization 50 Strong because that's the number of kids he wants to get into the gym each Sunday. He often meets that goal.

"There aren't a lot of gyms around open on Sunday, so we love it," said Delonta Cooper, a junior who averaged in double figures for Kecoughtan High's varsity basketball team a year ago. "The open gym keeps people off of the streets."

Patrick said, "We're not trying to replace anyone, but we want to supplement (the kids) by giving them needed support while providing a safe environment."

A typical Sunday starts out with Jones teaching basketball skills. Cooper says it has been very helpful.

"I like the way they've helped with my ball-handling, jump shot and fundamentals," he said. "We work a lot on footwork."

In addition to basketball, Patrick brings in speakers to the gym once or twice a month to share their life experiences. Former Hampton University head football coach Jerry Holmes, who played in the NFL, was one of the speakers.

Others work in business, law enforcement and finance. The latter, Jackson says, is to impress upon the kids the importance of investing money rather than spending it.

"A lot of these kids want to spend big on a pair of tennis shoes," said Jackson, who often talks to the kids about career development. "We want them to understand they might outgrow those tennis shoes, but you'll never outgrow the wisdom of managing your money, the wisdom of acquiring life-skills or the wisdom of getting an education."

Because many of those who come to the gym want to move on from area high school programs to college basketball, Jackson talks to them about what it will take to qualify for college. Shawn Hawkins, also a lifelong friend of Patrick's, spearheads the program's academic emphasis, which Cooper says has been helpful.

"They'll find a tutor for you and help you with your schoolwork," he said. "They'll try to make time to help you get your grades right."

Much of the several thousand dollars a year it takes to run the program comes from the mentors' pockets, although they've also received small donations and grants from the city of Hampton. They will use that money to fund travel to tournaments for the gym's basketball team or for field trips.

Patrick says he ultimately hopes the teens learn respect from the experiences, respect for the game of basketball and for adults. He also wants them to develop tolerance for others and an interest in helping their communities.

Patrick says the kids have raised $1,200 the past two years for the American Cancer Society through the Relay for Life and collected 300 pounds of canned goods for the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank. The organization is halfway to its goal of collecting 100 coats that Help Inc. will distribute to Coats for Families.

"As they grow older, we want them to be respectable adults and know what it takes to take care of a family," he said. "And we stress team building because, as they go out in the world, they're going to need to get along with all types of individuals.

"If you can do that, it will make you a much better person."


Information from: Daily Press, http://www.dailypress.com/