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Harlem After School Program Saves Kids From the Street

June 10, 1989

NEW YORK (AP) _ Gene Kitt calls East Harlem ″one of the toughest areas in the world. If crack isn’t in your house, it’s in the hallway or on the corner.″

Amid the drugs and despair, Kitt operates an oasis of learning and fun: the Upward Fund, a not-for-profit organization that runs a summer day camp and after school programs for 1,200 youngsters age 6 to 19.

Upward Fund teachers and volunteers, working out of an East Harlem elementary school, provide tutoring, job training, drug abuse prevention, dance, sports and even lessons in manners.

″You play with a purpose - to learn,″ says Kitt.

In the gym, kids playing basketball are asked what the ball is made of and how to spell it. A geography lesson sneaks in as the children name the home cities of professional teams.

In a room lined with computers, Danita Williams, 7, guides Snoopy through a maze on her screen. ″I like playing outside, gym and computers,″ she said. Her neighbor, Tommy Rumardo, 7, agreed.

″They love this program - and they don’t even know they’re learning,″ said Kitt.

George Rivera, a single parent who works for a medical research company, said his two sons are ″always kept busy here in a positive way, with computers, arts and crafts, basketball. It doesn’t give them a chance to get into the wrong things - the people on the corner and the crack dealers.″

″Parents are struggling to save their children from the street, and we want to help,″ said Kitt.

For adults, there are literacy and English-as-a-second-language classes. Youngsters 13 and up get job training, starting with dress code and attitude.

″They need to know you can’t just say, ’Where’s the man with the job?‴ said Kitt. ″And they should have not one career as a dream, but five, in case some don’t work out.″

Anthony Carreras, 14, who enrolled in the Upward Fund at age 7, said tutoring in math and reading ″helped me a lot when I was younger.″ Now, he proudly says, he works after school in the Upward Fund office.

Joe Charles, 25, said the Upward Fund ″had a big impact on my life.″ Kitt helped him get an internship at an insurance company when he was 19, and he now works for the company full-time.

In the summer camp, Kitt has each child take pictures using three different cameras - just to make sure a budding Ansel Adams doesn’t go undiscovered.

Most Upward Fund children live below the poverty line and pay only $3 a year to attend the after school program. Much of the organization’s $600,000 annual budget comes from corporate and foundation donations.

Kitt speaks proudly of starting an ice hockey program, and beams as he tells how hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky and the L.A. Kings once came to Harlem to play with the Upward Fund team.

The program teaches mutual respect, too.

″Today, if a kid steps on another kid’s toe, he’s liable to punch him in the face and go home and get three Uzis,″ Kitt said referring to a type of machine gun. ″So we teach them manners.″

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