Tag: Oak Park and River Forest High School

Triton Touts Over $1M in Grants

Monday, November 27, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

Featured image: An geoengineering professional at work. One grant Triton received will fund a scholarship program for students interested in the field. | Menard Oceania 

Since October, Triton College has announced a succession of large grants that will fund initiatives both on and off of the college’s River Grove campus.

Continue reading “Triton Touts Over $1M in Grants”

Novelist With Maywood Ties Explores Suffocating Reality of Race

Marian Thomas photo.jpg

Marian L. Thomas takes a break from a book signing and discussion inside of AfriWare Books in Maywood on Saturday to talk about her most recent novel, “I Believe in Butterflies.” | Michael Romain/VFP

Monday, June 5, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews 

In the opening scene of Marian L. Thomas’s new novel, “I Believe in Butterflies,” Emma Lee Baker, one of the lead characters, is standing on a bridge “during the heat of the day” and staring at fish.

“I ain’t crazy. I just like staring at freedom,” Baker says through the book’s first-person narration. Moments later, the reader finds out the 76-year-old woman’s grim discovery — the body of a young girl who appears to be no older than 14, her blonde hair “wrapped around her neck like it was the thing that choked the poor life out of her.”

Thomas flips the script, so to speak, on a very familiar literary occurrence — instead of a black male found dead, the victim of a lynching; here is white innocence itself, a young blonde female teen, symbolically lynched by the very standard of beauty and power meant to be her protection. Before long, racism makes victims of us all, Thomas’s novel proposes.

Race and its many, suffocating complications, loom over much of the author’s body of work, which includes a children’s book, a play and six novels.

But it took leaving relatively integrated Oak Park and moving to Atlanta for Thomas to start working through those many complications.


In Oak Park, Thomas lived with her maternal grandparents, who were one of two black homeowners on the block, she said. The reality of race here, however, wasn’t quite as domineering as it was in Atlanta.

For the most part, Thomas’s grandparents lived the American Dream, which they earned through a degree of thrift that’s rare nowadays. Thomas’s grandmother, a nurse at Mt. Sinai Hospital and her grandfather, a baker, bought their Oak Park house and their Cadillacs in cash.

“They drove Cadillacs that were paid for and they would drive a car until it just fell apart,” Thomas, 45, recalled during a recent interview after a book signing event held Saturday at AfriWare Books in Maywood.

 “We don’t do that today, but that was them. They paid cash for everything,” she said of her grandparents. “They didn’t believe in credit cards. In the book, Emma Lee Baker talks about how her husband was able to afford the home she still lives in and how it was unheard of for African Americans to own a home.”

In 1988, Thomas moved to Atlanta with her father and stepmother. She was only one of two black seniors in her high school’s graduating class. Thomas said her father now lives in Maywood.

“Growing up in Oak Park, I didn’t really understand the whole black, white, interracial dynamic until I moved to the South, which is a very different culture,” she said. “It was an eye-opener.”

If moving to the South sparked an awareness of grand themes that would define her work, Thomas’s time in Oak Park fertilized her passion for storytelling. It was in the library at Oak Park and River Forest High School where she wrote he first short story, which became the basis for her first novel, “Color Me Jazzmyne” — published two decades and many rewrites later.

The book climbed to the top of the Amazon bestseller’s list and won a Sankofa Literary Society award.

Thomas had by then graduated from college magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in business. She said she was pushed by an old boss to rework her high school short story into a novel.

Now, Thomas, who works full-time as a digital marketing professional, is experiencing a fresh surge in popularity and appeal. Her message, though, is as age-old as her grandparents’ thriftiness.

“Emma talks about her fish and why she loves her fish, which she call ‘freedom,’” Thomas said. “That’s because that’s how God meant for all of us to be [just as fish are fish, people are people]. We should focus on being men and women. Race shouldn’t be the first thing we think about. The message in the book is to treat each other as humans.” VFP

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At 100, Gwendolyn Brooks Still Inspires

Gwendolyn Brooks.jpg

The late poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize. | Photo by Nora Brooks Blakely

Golden Shovel book .jpgTuesday, March 14, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews

The poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who died in 2000 at the age of 83, would have been 100 years old this year. In Illinois, particularly in the Chicago area, Brooks has become something of an institution. There are no fewer than five schools across the state named after the late poet.

Last month, the Art Institute of Chicago’s Rubloff Auditorium hosted all five living African-American winners of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the Chicago Tribune reported. The night climaxed with the tony crowd chanting Brook’s famous 1959 poem, “We Real Cool.” And that was just the start of a spate of Brooks centenary celebrations happening all over the state this year.

Beyond Illinois, however, the legacy of Brooks — the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize and the first black woman to be appointed a Poet Laureate, a position she held in Illinois from 1969 until her death — can still sometimes seem unjustly underappreciated, says Peter Kahn, Oak Park and River Forest High School English teacher and Spoken Word Club sponsor.

That’s partly why Kahn set out to compile hundreds of poems, written by poets both famous and up-and-coming (including around 20 OPRF alums), based on lines from several Brooks poems, including “We Real Cool.”

The result is The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, which was published this year by the University of Arkansas Press.

“Golden Shovel” was inspired by a poem written less than a decade ago by National Book Award-winning poet Terrance Hayes called “The Golden Shovel.” The last words of each line in Hayes’ work are words from at least one line pulled from Brooks’ “We Real Cool.”

According to a description that appears on the jacket of the anthology, “The poems are, in a way, secretly encoded to enable both a horizontal reading of the new poem and vertical reading down the right-hand margin of Brooks’ original.”

Hayes writes the forward for the book and his “Golden Shovel” is the first poem in a collection of at least 200 other Golden Shovel poems by some of the greatest living poets in the country, including Brooks admirers like Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove — herself a Pulitzer Prize winner and the first African American U.S. Poet Laureate.

Kahn said it took approximately three years of frequent emails and follow-ups to compile the book, which he co-edited along with poets Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith. The fact that he’s a teacher, he added, may have helped ease his pitch.

“In some instances, people would send me a poem on the day I requested it,” Kahn said last week. “In other instances, I emailed three or four times over the course of 2-3 years. I think mentioning that students were involved was helpful.”

The Golden Shovel poems by Kahn — whose poem, “Gray,” is based on a line from Brooks’ “Kitchenette Building” — and two dozen of his former students are also featured in the book.

For Chicago poet Asia Calcagno, who said Kahn introduced her to poetry while she was a student at OPRF roughly a decade ago, the anthology was as much an ode to Brooks’ life work as it is to her poetry.

“I think Peter cared a lot about getting different generations involved in the book, similar to how Gwendolyn cared about youth and the arts,” said Calcagno. “Peter didn’t just want popular poets but also young poets who are starting to come into their own voice.”

Calcagno’s poem, “Gravestones,” is based on a line from Brooks’ poem, “Riot,” about a linen and wool-clad, Jaguar-owning white man named John Cabot, “out of Wilma, once a Wycliffe,” who stumbles upon a group of “black and loud” blacks during a domestic disturbance.

One of the poem’s last lines, “You are a desperate man, and the desperate die expensively today,” runs down the left margins of Calcagno’s poem about a deep, philosophical conversation she once had with a friend during a smoke break.

“I don’t think I realized how profound [Brooks] was until I was starting college,” Calcagno, a former school teacher, said. “Her being a woman of color from Chicago who had a deep appreciation for youth and education and the arts — everything in my life has revolved around those things.”

Adam Levin, another of Kahn’s former students and his current Spoken Word teaching assistant at OPRF, said the opportunity to be published beside poets like Billy Collins, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, was “incredibly humbling.”

“I think it’s a testament to Peter, that he’d be willing to do that for his former students,” Levin said. “People like me almost never submit poems to anything for publication. He asked me to do it and stayed on me, having me re-write drafts until I had something worth being in the book.”

Kahn said he was simply taking his cues from Brooks, whom he met three times when the poet was still alive. Each time, he said, the poet exhibited the kind of humility and openness that endeared her to so many poets and non-poets alike.

“I was always blown away at her combination of being so humble, yet so fierce and so accessible and so genius,” said Kahn. “Those are words you wouldn’t normally associate with one another. She was extremely generous with her time and her own money. I think that’s partly why we were able to get so many people like Nikki Giovanni, who looked up to Brooks, I imagine, not just as a writer but also a mentor.”

Those qualities in the late poet may be what makes Levin’s Golden Shovel poem, “We were gonna go through with it, and then we lost it,” so profound. He borrows part of the last line from Brooks’ “The Mother.”

“Believe me, I loved you all,” writes Brooks. “Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you all.” VFP

P A I D  A D V E R T I S E M EN T 


Maywood Trustee Helps Lead Anti-Racism March in Oak Park

Isiah Brandon Protest_VFP

Maywood Trustee Isiah Brandon leads a protest chant down Lake Street in Oak Park on July 16. The march, organized by Oak Park teacher Anthony Clark, below, was held to put a spotlight on suburban racism and discrimination. | William Camargo/Wednesday Journal

protest_WJ_072016_6 (1)Sunday, July 17, 2016 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews || @village_free 

More than 150 people walked from Oak Park and River Forest High School to Forest Park’s busy Madison Street business district on Saturday as part of a peaceful protest march that grew out of a viral Facebook post.

The multiracial throng, accompanied by police escorts, walked the sidewalks of Lake Street and Harlem chanting slogans like “Unity Now!” and holding signs that read “Unite Behind Equity,” “Everyone is the Same,” and “I Am a Customer.” 

They were led by Anthony Clark, an OPRF teacher who organized the march, and Maywood Trustee Isiah Brandon, who said he was prompted to start calling out chants after he showed up, having learned of the march on Facebook, and realized the group of demonstrators needed some galvanizing.

“I stand with their call for unity within our communities and collaboration,” Brandon said during an interview after the roughly hour-long event, which the trustee wasn’t involved in planning.

Clark said he hopes to launch a more permanent movement to address the kind of discrimination he and most of the demonstrators say is an everyday occurrence for African Americans in the suburbs. 

On July 10, OPRF English teacher Paul Noble, who along with several other high school teachers helped Clark organize the march, reposted a complaint on Facebook that he noted “was posted today by a local mom.” The post alleged that a group of people went inside the Forest Park bar Doc Ryan’s on the night of July 9, requested 90’s hip-hop and were told “that they did not play hip hop because it brings black people in.”

The local mom, later identified as Cynthia Martz, posted a lengthy statement about her incident and in support of the march to her Facebook page on Sunday. Martz wrote that, after telling a manager about what she was told by the person in the DJ booth, she was shocked “when he offered no apology, nor did he attempt to help, resolve or fix the problem; instead, he explained that the DJ was hired by the door man – not him.”

By July 14, Noble’s post about Martz’s incident had been shared more than 520 times, with many people commenting on what they felt were discriminatory experiences of their own in Oak Park, Forest Park and surrounding suburbs. 

In the days after Noble’s post, Martin M. Sorice, the owner of Doc Ryan’s who along with his wife bought the bar over a year ago, said the incident with the mom happened in a DJ booth and that the person who may have said the offensive statement wasn’t an employee of the bar. 

Sorice, who noted that he received information about the incident after talking to staff, also wrote that “we take full responsibility for letting someone represent us who doesn’t work there. We promise to do everything in our power to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” 

Some Forest Park residents, in numerous Facebook comments, expressed their opinion of Clark’s demonstration as a hasty and overblown reaction to one allegation of racial discrimination that couldn’t even be verified. Some commenters also expressed fears that the demonstration would unfairly stigmatize other businesses in the area.

Clark said that by the time he reacted to Noble’s post, however, the original incident had become an afterthought, obscured by the many other discriminatory incidents it had forced the Oak Park native to recall.

Brandon, who knows the owners of Doc Ryan’s personally and noted that he hasn’t experienced any discrimination at the business, said his motivation for demonstrating was less about Martz’s incident than about the higher message of love and unity.

“I’m behind any message that calls for unity, us working together and creating a level of comfort for all of those who travel through, and live in, our communities,” he said. “I support a lot of businesses in Forest Park, know a lot of the owners personally and haven’t had anything happen to me. I was there for the message.”

Paul Noble Protest

OPRF teacher Paul Noble, who helped organize the Saturday march against discrimination and racism through Oak Park and Forest Park. | William Camargo/Wednesday Journal

‘You can’t be neutral when it comes to equality’

“When the incident (with the mom) happened, I couldn’t even validate that, but when I saw (Noble’s) post and I saw everybody posting comments underneath it (about their experiences), I could validate them,” Clark said. “I could validate my own experiences growing up in the suburbs. That’s all I needed.”

There was the time, Clark alleged in one Facebook comment, when he was kicked out of Doc Ryan’s for hosting a comic show that “brought in too many black people.” And the “last time” he drank at the bar, he wrote in another comment, “one of the owner’s friends held what initially seemed like an innocent conversation with me about sports etc. but then ended it with I wasn’t like those other [ni — ers] you see on tv. Needless to say, that didn’t go over well!”

On Saturday, marchers shared similar experiences with discrimination and racism in the suburbs, places some demonstrators noted have been overshadowed by the recent national unrest over police mistreatment of African Americans, particularly in big cities like Chicago and New York.

“You can’t be neutral when it comes to equality and peace,” Clark told demonstrators who gathered at the corner of Lake Street and East Ave. beside the football stadium, before the march began. 

“I feel like too often in suburban communities, we witness (racism), we experience it, but we never speak on it,” he said. “We never act on it. We just go about our day. That’s not unity. That’s not progress.”

Noble, who said that he didn’t know the mom whose allegation he posted, noted that the events involving the police-related shootings of African American men like Michael Brown, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, likely played a significant part in how he and others responded to the woman’s accusation. 

“Maybe my own initial instinct was affected by (those events), I’m not going to deny that,” he said. “But while we can point the finger at Ferguson or this place or that place, let’s at least make sure our own house is in order before we start pointing the finger at these other communities.” 

Matt Baron, the president of the Oak Park Public Library Board of Trustees, said he grew up in a “lily white community” in suburban Boston and attended a high school where “nobody in my graduating class was African American.” 

“You can’t be neutral on this,” he said. “You’re either on the bus or off the bus. I realized that, if I could be here tonight, I needed to be here because if I wasn’t then I’d be passively part of the problem.”

The Saturday march took many bystanders, like 20-year-old Tylisha Jackson, by surprise. Jackson, a waitress at Mancini’s Italian Bistro, 1111 Lake St., watched the demonstration along with a group of several of her coworkers while she was taking a break. 

“I don’t have much of an opinion about it,” Jackson said when she was finally clued in on the reason the march was taking place. 

“I’m kind of wrapped up in my own life,” she said. “But from what I’ve heard and seen about other marches (across the country) it seems like they’re not really making a difference. People come out, march, protest, but are they really changing our laws and local businesses?”

Julia Bruynseels, a resident of River Forest, was seated in front of her laptop outside of Starbucks on the corner of Lake St. and Harlem when she saw the march. She said it was unexpected, but not unsurprising. 

“I just came back from being in Naperville and have a seen a lot on the news,” she said. “I didn’t think it would happen here, but it doesn’t surprise me because Oak Park people are open to voicing their opinions and promoting equality across the board.” 

Steve Pointer, a longtime resident of Forest Park, stood outside of Zimmerman-Hartnett Funeral home as the demonstration neared its end. He said he thought people were protesting against gambling bistros coming into town. 

One man, an owner of a Madison St. business who requested anonymity, was asked his thoughts on the march before saying, “That’s an issue nobody wants to touch right now.”

Jason Barishman came to the march from Skokie with his wife Asa, who grew up in Oak Park, and their three children. 

“I’m standing up for my family,” said Jason. “My family is black. We get some head turns a little because I’m white, but I don’t think we’ve ever gotten turned down service or anything like that.” 

Asa said her parents, who organized a black studies conference at Olive Harvey College and have lived in Oak Park for 30 years, taught her to “be woke,” or aware of the persistence of racism and discrimination. But they couldn’t fully prepare her to deal with what she said was her first “official experience with racism.”

“I was in my 20s,” Asa recalled. “It was my senior year of college and I was living at Beloit and Adams in Forest Park. I was walking down the street and an elderly lady was approaching me. I stepped to the side for her, because that’s what I was taught to do and she told me, ‘Rot in jail ni — er.'” 

The Barishmans shared their stories at the march’s terminating point, a few hundred feet from a stage installed for Forest Park’s popular Music Fest, which is being held over the weekend. Before the demonstration ended, the marchers stood in a circle cater-cornered from a Starbucks and listened to different people share their testimonies and evangelize the need for more love and unity in the world. 

At one point as the marchers stood encircled, a song by the controversial rap group NWA (Ni — az Wit Attitudes) blared ironically from the fest’s loudspeakers along with hip-hop songs like the early 1990s anthem “Tootsie Roll,” made by the rap group 69 Boyz.

NWA rose to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s for lyrics that condemned police abuse while inviting criticism from national leaders like Ronald Reagan, who thought the group incited violence against cops.

With hip-hop blasting,  a group of officers from Forest Park’s police department looked through powerful binoculars on the roof of Healy’s Westside, a bar on the corner of Madison St. and Circle Ave.

“After what happened in Dallas, we’re just watching the rooftops making sure there’s nobody up high,” said Forest Park Police Chief Tom Aftanas, referencing the July 7 shooting deaths of five police officers in that city who were gunned down while protecting people protesting against the deaths of Castile and Sterling just days before the massacre.

But the paramilitary presence was more than logistical. It was also a pungent visualization of the complex, ambivalent and sometimes fraught relationship between the police and African Americans — a tension that doesn’t abate even in communities well-known for their embrace of cultural diversity, some marchers noted.

A complex relationship 


During and after the roughly hour-long demonstration, young African American men who live in the suburbs shared their own experiences of discrimination and racism. | William Camargo/Wednesday Journal

Oak Park Police Commander Joseph Waitzman said the department “has collaborated with the community, and the community has collaborated with government, since the 1970s.”

“That, for me, is a positive feeling,” Waitzman told marchers before they started walking. “The police department has made those deposits in the community over many years. We’re happy to be here to ensure that everybody has an opportunity to exercise their First Amendment rights to public assembly.” 

Clark, however, noted that planning the march, which he said he opted to stage on sidewalks so that he wouldn’t have to obtain a permit, was far from a waltz — even with Oak Park police, who he said called his home due to concerns shared by some people that he may be inciting violence.

The police, Clark said, also encouraged him to change the march’s highly visible route so that demonstrators might walk along more placid, less visible, side streets instead. Oak Park Police couldn’t be reached to verify or deny Clark’s claims. 

Clark also said that, as his plans received more and more attention, he began receiving lewd and threatening text messages from anonymous numbers. 

When he approached some local businesses in the days ahead of the demonstration so that they might sign a pledge indicating that they were against racism and discrimination in their practices, Clark said, he was met with indifference and even disdain. 

Of the 40 businesses he walked into along the march’s route, 17 signed the pledge, he noted. Employees from the majority of establishments he approached told him that they needed to wait for a manager’s or owner’s approval. Some, he said, preferred to remain neutral. Others, like the Forest Park ice cream parlor The Brown Cow, responded enthusiastically. 

“I’m not going to put out those businesses (that reacted neutrally or hostilely to the pledge), because this isn’t about negativity. This isn’t about that,” Clark said, adding that he doesn’t want to invite any more distractions from the much larger issue of racism and discrimination.

Will Knox, Clark’s best friend, shared his own complicated experience growing up black in Oak Park — experiences contoured by frequent run-ins with the cops. 

Knox, 34, said he thinks that violence against cops won’t help prevent nightmarish encounters with police, such as his own. If anything, he said, “shooting cops will make things worse.” 

“There are some genuinely good-hearted people here,” Knox said. “I grew up next door to a police officer. He was great. I drove his car, babysat his kids. Me and him were known for throwing parties. He was cool.” 

But then, Knox said, there are experiences like the time he came home from college and couldn’t remember the security password to his sister’s home, where he lived.

“The police tried to lock me up just for trying to get into my house,” Knox said. “I had to call my sister to get the pass code.” 

One of his earliest experiences with Oak Park police, Knox recalled, has to do with what ordinarily might be an emblem of suburban childhood — a bicycle.

“My sister raised me, so I had a nephew and I would ride a bike with a baby seat on the back of it,” he said. “I don’t know how many times they put that bike in the back of the squad car, put me in the car and drove me to my sister’s. She would have to tell cops, ‘Yeah, this is my bike.'” 

For Jeremiah Billups, a 2016 graduate of OPRF and Clark’s former student, the march was a chance to walk down the streets of the place where he was raised empowered for once. Usually, he said, he walks on eggshells crushed even finer by the specter of his criminal background. 

“They stopped me and my homies one night for walking in an alley,” Billups said. “They gave us a ticket just for walking through an alley. I had something on my background, nothing serious, just little cases. I asked why we were getting stopped and the officer was like, ‘Because you in my allies at 11:00 with robbery and theft all on your background.’ But he didn’t know that before he gave us a ticket.”

The march may have been designed to make audible what many demonstrators consider the often muted experiences of discrimination and racism that suburban blacks go through daily, but within Saturday’s protest were also the rumblings of resolution ahead. 

“From what I’ve seen from Anthony’s posts online, he’s been very articulate and concerned about inclusivity and he’s interested in working with people,” said Nick Ardinger, a member of Forest Park’s recently formed seven-member diversity commission. 

Ardinger said, while the commission hasn’t formally responded to the concerns raised by Clark and others, they plan on finding ways to address them at their next meeting. 

Clark said he’s since spoken with the owners of Doc Ryan’s and they’ve agreed to meet in person soon. He said he plans on building a more permanent organization to address discrimination through a variety of ways, such as hosting town hall discussions and the unity pledge he’s asking local businesses to sign.

“This doesn’t stop here,” he told marchers. “This is the beginning. While we can respect the businesses, we’re going to hold them accountable.” VFP

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An AAU hoops program, premised on a European development model, looks to expand in Maywood, Other Western Suburbs


IMPACT Coach James Foster, 59, during a skills workout with Cornelius Montgomery, 15, at Oak Park and River Forest High School on Feb. 13. The basketball program, which comprises both developmental and elite AAU teams, is looking to expand to Maywood. | Rick Majewski/Wednesday Journal.


Monday, February 15, 2016 || By Michael Romain 

“I grew up in North Lawndale. I was a statistic,” said James Foster, 59, and a head coach with IMPACT (short for Individuals Making Positive Alternative Choices Together) basketball. The organization comprises a series of AAU (short for Amateur Athletic Union) and developmental basketball teams for kids ranging from second-graders to high-schoolers.

“But through the grace of God, my mom, my dad and my coach, I was able to make it. Back then we had more community involvement with kids. I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t have several mentors. One of my best mentors was an ex-army sergeant in my elementary school. The next one came when I was at Farragut, during its heyday. And the best one of all of them was my father.”

Now Foster is a mentor himself. Since the organization was started in 2000, the longtime coach has shepherded, by his rough estimation, upwards of 1,500 kids through IMPACT and into playing careers, and scholarships, at NCAA Division I schools around the country.

According to parent LaDonna Stokes, whose 14- and 11-year-old sons play under Foster, around 60 percent of IMPACT’s participants come from Oak Park and Austin, but they’re looking to make inroads into Maywood, Bellwood, Westchester, Melrose Park and other nearby suburbs. The organization is currently holding workouts each Saturday at Oak Park and River Forest High School before spring tryouts start in a few weeks.

Not your typical AAU team

She and Foster described IMPACT in terms that seem to go against everything retiring NBA superstar Kobe Bryant says he hates about AAU basketball in America.

“I hate it because it doesn’t teach our players how to play the right way, how to think the game, how to play in combinations of threes,” Bryant said in an interview with ESPN last month.

“I think everything is a reward system. I think the coaches who are teaching the game are getting rewarded in one fashion or another. It’s just a showcase. I think it’s absolutely horrible for the game,” said Bryant, before noting how lucky he was to have developed his game in Europe, where “everything was still fundamental, so I learned the game.”

And the headlines seem to have reinforced Bryant’s opinion of the nonprofit amateur athletic organization, which was founded in 1888 and fields programs all across the United States and Canada in a multitude of sports — not just basketball. It has a reported 700,000 members and sanctions hundreds of sports tournaments that rake in more than $20 million, according to an ESPN report.

The news stories often feature figures like Curtis Malone, an alleged cocaine kingpin from Maryland who would build an AAU basketball empire so vast, “almost every NCAA coach in the country — from Mike Krzyzewski to Billy Donovan to Bob Huggins — would take his calls,” ESPN notes.

Or AAU’s former president, Robert Dodd, who “stepped down in late 2011 amid allegations that he had molested young basketball players as a coach,” but not before he was paid $1.2 million.

Or David Salinas, late manager of the Houston Select AACU and investment manager who “found himself at the center of an SEC (Securities Exchange… not Mike Slive’s league) investigation into an alleged Ponzi scheme that cost his investors millions,” according to a report by SB Nation. “The twist? Many of those investors were major college basketball coaches, all of whom lost millions of dollars investing with Salinas.”

Both Stokes and Foster are well aware of AAU’s reputation. It’s one they simultaneously try to hold up as an object lesson and keep at bay.

“Many [AAU] programs will take children and use them for what they will do,” said Stokes, reinforcing the long-held characterization of AAU as an organization known more for treating young amateurs as potential investments that might pay off on draft day than developmental leagues. “The truth is whatever you do well is what you’ll do well. They won’t take the time to help you grow.”

“IMPACT is a place where someone cares about your child and not just what your child can do,” she said. “Coach Foster cares about the total child and that’s way more important to me.”

“Impact is based on two principles — the band principle and European style,” Foster said. “If you buy your kid an instrument, you expect him to play it, right? If you invest in IMPACT, we expect for the kids to practice … The games are like going to concerts, as if we’re on tour. Everything else is training with our instruments. We call it drill for skills. But the biggest thing is we’ve got God on our side.”

“This is atypical of AAU,” Stokes said. “AAU gets a bad rap, because people have taken it and made it overly competitive and they’ve forgotten to develop kids. If you come in and you can dribble well, but you don’t defend; when you finish with most AAU teams, you’re going to be the same way — you won’t defend and you’ll dribble well. IMPACT is atypical. You will finish better than you started, no matter what.”

“My son is a great example,” Stokes said, pointing to her 14-year-old. “He’s always been big. From the time Foster trained him, most people would take him and make him a center. No. He can actually handle the ball. One time, he was in the open court and he stopped, turned around and gave the ball to the point guard. Coach blew the whistle and said, ‘Sir, when you have the ball in the open lane, you’re a guard.’”

Foster said the European model of training isn’t position specific; rather, “they train a complete basketball player.”

“If a kid is tall, he’s going to be able to play all positions. He might be able to play the post, but it’s not my job to make him a post player. It’s my job to make him a complete player. I might put him in post, but I’m not going to restrict him from playing basketball.”

“The reason why we’re successful is because we build confidence,” he said. “We’re like family; wins are secondary. If you can teach them how to play hard and not give up, the wins will come. We have two tiers of teams, elite team and developmental teams. So, we have something for everybody.”

Cornelius Montgomery, 15, is a relative newcomer to the game of basketball who said Foster is one of his first mentors.

“Coach foster is more than just a coach to me,” he said. “My momma always raised me in the church, but Coach Foster teaches us on religion and that’s important to me. He’s very well spoken and he knows what he’s talking about. One of my favorite lessons is the one about the farmer. A farmer is someone who plants things. Coach Foster says, ‘Everybody wants to eat, but not everybody wants to grow what they eat. At IMPACT, we’ve got farmers over here.” VFP