By Michael Romain
“I was living in Northern Virginia, working as a government contractor,” says Rev. Regi Ratliffe, who was raised in Maywood and attended Garfield Elementary and Proviso East High School. Mr. Ratliffe, an NCAA All-American wrestler who competed at the Olympic trials, was tired of coming back home to a place that was looking less and less like the Maywood of his youth.
So he left the Virginia suburbs, left his well-paying job and returned to the place of his upbringing. In 1997, he founded Eternal Light Youth Services, a nonprofit organization that offers after-school and summer recreational and academic services to area young people, ages 5 to 18. For the last two years, the organization has operated in the historic Masonic Building at 200 S. Fifth Avenue.
To maintain the organization, Mr. Ratliffe relies on a core group of key volunteer instructors, such as Maurice Martin (self-defense), Keith Brown, (weight training), James Hannah (wrestling) and Vernell Brown (tumbling); in addition to a coterie of volunteers from local colleges such as Loyola, Dominican and Concordia, who assist with tutoring and nutritional instruction. Mr. Ratliffe’s two key staff members, Patrick Winters, director of athletics and Sonja McCoy, director of community relations, assist him with day-to-day operations.
Patrick Winters is in his office looking out into the gymnasium that was added onto the Masonic building some years ago with funds provided by Michael Finley, a Proviso East alumnus and former NBA star who played with the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics. Finley’s #4 Mavericks jersey is hallowed in a glass case that hangs at the gymnasium’s entrance. Whoever enters this hard court sanctuary has to pass by Finley’s relic and (when he’s inside of his office) Winters’s trademark beard, which only adds to his oracle-like appearance.
Every place as rich in folklore and humanity as Maywood’s basketball courts and baseball diamonds and football fields and wrestling mats has an aura, a mystique, which is often embodied in someone like Mr. Winters, for whom the past is still very much present.
Winters could probably tell you the name of every significant athlete that’s passed through the Village in the last thirty years. He’s probably coached or mentored or played with half of them. As he shows me the room where self-defense instruction is held, Winters drops the name of Nathaniel “Spider” Walker, an MMA fighter who trains here from time to time. Several inflatable punching bags are scattered throughout the empty room like pillars of salt, consistent with the organic, makeshift spirit of the building’s current occupants–shaped from the pressure of circumstance.
“You have to understand what fear is,” says Maurice Martin, himself a former MMA fighter and the self-defense instructor. “In order to get over the fear of pain, you’ve got to expose yourself to physical altercation slowly, in small doses, in a controlled manner.”
He’s explaining one of the primary advantages of learning self-defense, which trains people to react against their instinct to ‘fight or flee’ in dangerous situations, to assess with their front brains before they act with their hind brains. “We teach Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, the way of the intercepting fist,” Mr. Martin says. “If someone attacks you, the best response is to intercept the attack, rather than fighting them.”
Mr. Martin was drawn to Eternal Light because he wanted to train with a crowd of people with whom he could relate on a cultural level. “I wanted to come back to a more familiar setting,” he says. There were only about two people in attendance when I observed, but a typical class may have between 10-12 participants, whose ages range from around ten to over sixty.
This sense of order is a vital antidote to many of the children’s chaotic domestic situations. “A lot of the kids go through emotional challenges and they have no outlet,” says Mr. Ratliffe. For many of the youth his organization services, the center is a place of much-needed balance. “We’re here to provide an outlet for them. We give them tough love sometimes, but they appreciate that.”
Before each day of activities start, the youth and volunteers arrange themselves in a large prayer circle in the gym; Tutoring is mandatory; each child is provided with a membership card (in exchange for a registration fee that amounts to about $1/night); snacks are provided several days out of the week; and most of the programming, which includes mentoring, computer instruction, financial literacy courses, tumbling, basketball, wrestling, volleyball and weight-lifting, is structured. There’s also a social worker on site. On any given school night, around 140 kids may cycle through the building.
But much of the activity that goes on here is also spontaneous and improvisational. As I was waiting for Mr. Ratliffe to arrive, I witnessed two young women engaged in violin lessons–one was teaching, while the other was learning. And as I was leaving, a young woman was seated alone at a table in the main multi-purpose room, drawing while listening to music. “When are we going to get art lessons?” she asked Mr. Ratliffe, who said that he’d look into making it happen.
“We could always use more volunteers,” Mr. Ratliffe says. “We always hear people say that there aren’t programs here in Maywood, but they don’t stop by here and help out. We need the community to be more engaged for these kids.” VFP