AYRLA started out with 26 kids in a middle school. According to Nardolillo, gangs have attempted to recruit some of the students who come from the troubled areas of Providence. “I think at first we ?definitely had a bit of a culture shock. This was our first experience working with youth, especially at-risk youth. So it was definitely a bit of a struggle on both ends for us to get acclimated to the situation and learn how to interact with the kids and to get them to respect us, since we were not from their experience.”
To bridge some of the divides and bring cultures together, Play Rugby USA has trained teachers to coach the sport. At PS/MS 218, Edith Ogbogu, a physical education teacher, coaches rugby, which is a sport offered through the Co-Operative Healthy Active Motivated Positive Students (C.H.A.M.P.S.) program. “It was hard at first,” she says. “I come from a football family, the NFL. Our family was always big into football.” (Her brother, Eric Ogbogu, played defensive end for the New York Jets, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Dallas Cowboys.)
“I went through with it and learned the sport. And I said, ‘You know what? Our kids will benefit from this sport because it’s more challenging than football.’ The level of skill to play rugby was different from football. And I think that the kind of kids we have here need to be challenged. And rugby is that sport to challenge.
“Most of these kids are from this neighborhood. Very low income. We’re a Title I school, so many of these kids come from very poor homes. … It’s tough on them. So there’s an outlet.”
Ogbogu looks at the kids running and having fun on the school’s basketball court. Their spirit is youthful, without the signs of the pain in their lives. Some of them linger in the gym after practice ends at 4:30, 4:45, to delay having to go home. “Because what are they going home to?” Ogbogu says. “There are four or five of them in one room. This gives them a chance to not have to go home so early. You’ve got brothers and sisters and a parent living in one room. These kids, they’ve got it rough. They don’t show it, but they do.”
That feeling of belonging is why high school students who are graduates of PS/MS 218 and the rugby program often visit, like Robert Perez. There is no rugby team at his high school, so he tosses the ball with his father outside the housing project where they live and hopes to play in a summer program. His father is a veteran who can’t find a job, and his mother left the family eight years ago, so his father raises the three children alone as he works odd jobs to make ends meet.
“I have taught him how to play rugby,” Robert says of his father. “This has definitely helped to ease the tensions in our lives.”
David J. Dent is a professor of journalism and social and cultural analysis at New York University and the author of In Search of Black America: Discovering the African-American Dream.