A place to play
Two years ago, after joining the Reynolds School district as a homeless and community liaison, Anthony Bradley realized there was a gap in the services provided to the at-risk kids.
Working with his first case load of children, Bradley was told those living on the streets and in shelters were being forced to play in an unsafe, unfinished parking lot covered in cigarette butts and trash after school.
"They were struggling at school more than the other kids," he said. "There was an element missing."
Brainstorming alongside his long-time friend Germaine Flentroy, the pair came up with a solution. They secured gym space and began a program that provides a safe place for the kids to play. Play-Grow-Learn was born.
"We wanted to let kids be kids," Bradley said. "But we didn't expect it to blow up like this."
The nonprofit organization has since grown into a massive undertaking in East Multnomah County. Helmed by Founder and Executive Director Bradley and Program Coordinator Flentroy, Play-Grow-Learn hosts weekly gym and family nights, multiple week-long summer camps and various other events throughout the year. On Thursday, March 29, the group wrapped a Spring Break Football and Basketball camp in the Friends of the Children gym.
The Spring Break camp allowed young homeless students to play and learn from older peers. The organizers like to have local high school students help run the camps. They teach the kids how to do the various drills, goof around with the younger ones and share advice on growing up. For the high schoolers, it is a chance to learn job skills, pick up volunteer hours, earn school credits and fill out their resumes as they look toward college and the workforce.
"They usually run the show better than I do," Bradley said with a laugh.
During all of the camps, which are free to attend, the students get lunch and free giveaways for being good examples. On Tuesday, one little boy received a game thanks to his adherence to the word-of-the-day: integrity. On average, the camps draw about 60 to 80 kids, almost all from East Portland and Gresham. Last year they worked with 176 unduplicated youths, though many like to return for multiple camps.
The children all learn while they have fun. Playing a game like Red-Light, Green-Light teaches them to follow directions, while another teaches observational skills as they try to spot who in a group is initiating different movements. The sports allow for a physical outlet and a chance to get healthy exercise, while other activities stimulate creativity.
"We are giving them life skills, things that can be translated to other settings," Flentroy said.
Beyond the opportunities for the young ones to play, the organizers will visit with families at the motels to discuss different support programs, like a legal day for parents where they can wipe out traffic fines through community service.
Bradley first realized the impact he and Flentroy had started while standing outside the gym one afternoon. As he was chatting with someone, he could hear the screams of joy and laughter echoing outward from the kids who had arrived for the first day of camp.
"I love the look on their faces," Bradley said. "I am very passionate and dedicated to helping these babies."
Play-Grow-Learn has been able to continue expanding its services thanks to a grant from the Multnomah County Joint office of Homeless Services, and assistance from organizations like Friends of the Children, Metropolitan Family Services, Reynolds School District and various other partners. College Square Laundry & Dry Cleaning, Flying Pie Pizzeria and SAFE Transportation are some of the businesses that provide in-kind donations.
This summer, Play-Grow-Learn will double its camps to 18, offering separate opportunities for children in the foster care system that focus on useful skills: sports like baseball, football and basketball; an art camp; and a radical self-care camp for girls.
"Being on the streets as a girl is vastly different," Bradley said. "So, we brought people in to teach them about naturopathic ways to make tea, bath oils, hairspray and much more."
Play-Grow-Learn will also continue its weekly gym nights and holiday-specific events like a Valentine's Day ball and Halloween Extravaganza.
While the nonprofit group is thankful for the support it has received, it is always looking for more. Be it monetary or in-kind donations, partners with administrative support, or community members who can teach and run the camps — Play-Grow-Learn loves any assistance. Visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/PGrowLearn/ for more information.
"When you think of homelessness, kids don't come to mind," Bradley said. "You don't see telethons for homeless young people."
Bradley sees a bright future ahead for Play-Grow-Learn. In addition to the foster children expansion, they also want to host a cultural celebration week to showcase the diversity amongst the kids they help.
He wants to keep going until there is a Play-Grow-Learn in every state, connecting homelessness and physical education.
"Where there is a homeless shelter, we want a program," Bradley said. "The shelter is not a good place for kids to play."