Ronald McInnis is used to getting the call. Sometimes it’s from a parent; sometimes from a teacher or school administrator. Regardless of who’s on the other end of the line, the message is the same: There’s a student having disciplinary issues and the caller has heard about the Georgetown County Youth Academy and its success in getting kids back on track.
The group, led by McInnis, is a nonprofit that uses sports and physical conditioning to teach life skills, respect for others and oneself, and make a positive impact on young people. It started out over a decade ago, meeting weekly at Beck Recreation Center. It has grown so much that the program now takes place Mondays through Thursdays at Beck. It’s open to students ages 8-14. Participants are mostly boys who play basketball, football or run track in the program, but girls are welcome too.
The program was originally focused on one sport – basketball – and was called Team DEFF, an acronym for Development, Education, Fundamentals and Fun. It then transitioned to the Elite Ballers and finally to its current iteration and its broader scope.
On a recent evening, McInnis paced the perimeter of the gym at Beck while coaches led the Academy’s basketball team through practice drills. As he observed, he kept a close eye on two teens he had instructed to push a towel around the gym floor. They had recently gotten detention and this was their punishment. Several times he went over to talk to each of the two individually. He counsels them using a fatherly tone. The boys listen solemnly and nod.
“We try to correct the behavior before it gets to suspension or expulsion,” McInnis explained. “If they have a disciplinary problem, whether it’s at school or at home, then we handle that inside these four walls here,” he said.
As of this spring, the program has around 150 kids on its various teams. They come from all across the county, though the majority are from the in and around the City of Georgetown, where many of the facilities the Academy uses are located. The hope is to grow participation in other regions of the county with the addition of more volunteers and community support.
While sports are the most obvious activity kids in the Youth Academy participate in, McInnis stresses it’s not a sports organization; it’s so much more.
“What we do here is engage in children’s lives to create positive results,” McInnis said. “It’s not about basketball or football. That’s just the hook. It’s about behavioral modification and character development. We’re in there speaking to them about their grades. We’re encouraging them to be better students, we’re steering them away from the detentions and in-school suspensions.”
It doesn’t work for every child, but most are helped by the program and some of the successes are incredible. McInnis mentioned one young man who is currently being recruited by a Division One college.
“He started out in our program with some issues. He was coming into the junior varsity level of basketball then,” McInnis said. “We helped him work through those issues – he got his anger under control, he got his attitude together. And then somebody saw him playing with us and he got into a Florida private school playing basketball. He got his grades up and now he’s on a path to success.”
McInnis said quite a few of the students who have come through the Youth Academy have gone on to college or the military and done very well for themselves.
“Athletically and academically, we’ve seen this program do a lot for our youth,” he said.
In the shorter term, but just as importantly, parents see a difference in their kids at home after they get involved with the Youth Academy. McInnis recounted a conversation he had with a father at the end of last season.
“He said ‘I want to thank you guys. This is the most I have communicated with my child in three or four years,’” McInnis recalled. The father said his son spent most of his time in his room on his phone or playing video games until he started the program. “They have open communication now,” McInnis said. “Going to and from practice, traveling from games, we teach that.”
In addition to sports and the lessons that are mixed in with them – such as team building and good decision making – the Youth Academy offers life skills classes and has students participate in exercises that promote social and emotional learning.
McInnis wants to see the program continue to grow and help youth across Georgetown County. He welcomes community support to help make that happen. “We need volunteers and we need financial support,” McInnis said. “We need coaches and tutors. If anyone has a passion to help, we would accept them with open arms.”
The Youth Academy is a 501(c)(3) organization. Monetary donations are needed to help pay for items including tournament entry fees and travel, insurance, uniforms and more. Anyone who is interested in getting involved as a volunteer or donor, or who knows a child who could benefit from the Academy, is invited to contact McInnis at firstname.lastname@example.org or (843) 833-4774.