Earnest Hart Helps Kids at St. Louis YMCA Build Character & Self Confidence

Lamont Shannon, Earnest Hart, Ruby Streate, Colleen Ewing, Dwayne Upchurch, and Elbert Harris

B.W. Durham

Every Saturday at 10 a.m., kids from 10 to 18 years old arrive at the YMCA on Locust Street in downtown St. Louis. Some have been in jail, others expelled from school or dealing with long-term suspension. All live in dangerous north St. Louis neighborhoods amid proliferating poverty.

They come here to participate in the YMCA’s Fall Camp Program. Many attended the Y’s Summer Camp Program and return today to benefit from the downtown Y’s Urban Core program, which conducts the camps.

The goal: To offer at-risk kids the opportunity to become more self confident and develop self discipline. And…Have fun.

Earnest Hart, Jr. is there to greet them. In the roomful of tough and sometimes hostile teenagers he brings immediate street credibility and respect.

Earnest grew up in downtown St. Louis housing projects. He was a small kid, and his father told him if he didn’t learn how to protect himself that he would be dead before turning 15. So he earned a black belt in 15 different martial arts and became a world-class kickboxing champion. Later, he appeared in Hollywood movies like “Batman & Robin” and “Mortal Kombat.”

Earnest has coached actors George Clooney, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Willem Dafoe as a consultant and trainer in self defense. His other clients have included Ozzie Smith and the St. Louis Rams football team. He currently consults privately with many families in the St. Louis area, and at schools.

But at the YMCA, Earnest will help kids have fun, challenge their energies in positive ways and help them develop their bodies and minds.

Developing a healthy body, mind and spirit has been the YMCA mission since the organization’s origin in 1844. But it is especially important today when so many kids are considered “at risk” — for drugs, criminal activity, violent gangs and leading delinquent lives that land them in prison.

Dressed in a black sweat suit and red t-shirt, Earnest bows to all the kids as they enter — about 20 of them. And they — some dressed in clothes they’ve worn for days — bow back.

“They respect my background because I grew up in a tough neighborhood, too,” says Earnest, “and they know I broke out, developed a positive attitude, became a champion.”

“I come here with no expectations or knowledge of the kids’ past. To me, they are all just kids.”

“I tell them, ‘Each and every one of you has talent. And it is my job to help you find and develop that talent. When you do that, you can work to become a good person, and to become the best person you can be.’”

The hour-long mentoring session with Earnest on Saturday mornings features martial arts demonstrations, self-defense, advice about developing self-respect and respect for others — plus advice that encourages non-violence and personal growth. The weekly sessions are one way to help improve the kids’ lives. And it seems to be working.

Part of a Team

Earnest is one in a team of mentors assembled by Coach Elbert Harris, director of youth, teens and family activities for the downtown YMCA of Greater St. Louis. The team works with kids in the Y’s Camp Programs, all of which are part of the Y’s Urban Core COVAM program. COVAM is an acronym for the Carr, O’Fallon, Vaughn and Murphy housing projects in north St. Louis, where many of the kids live.

Coach Harris’ Camp Program team includes Earnest Hart; Ms. Colleen E. Ewing, a YMCA assistant program director; Ms. Ruby Streate, director of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company in East St. Louis; and YMCA Counselor Dwayne Upchurch. Plus Lamont Shannon, a St. Louis freelance photographer who is involved with agencies that address economically challenged areas. At the Y Fall Camp Program, Shannon teaches kids how to be creative with digital photography and videography.

Coach Harris says, “There are kids in our program who really need help. We try to teach them mental toughness, help build their character and increase their self esteem. It’s about boosting their self confidence, self respect and learning to respect other people.”

Coach Harris and his team understand the risk factors for kids in today’s world — and kids’ vulnerability if they lack positive role models. Many of the kids in the downtown Y’s Camp Programs are exposed daily to risk factors in their neighborhoods, risk factors that include:

  • Low family income
  • Parental criminality
  • Parental drug or alcohol abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Bullying at school or from street gangs
  • Truancy
  • Feelings of alienation, deprivation, isolation or hopelessness
  • Lack of good role models
  • Unemployment
  • Petty crime or theft
  • And more

With living conditions like these, many kids in the Y’s Camp Programs need all the good role models and positive mentoring they can get.

Belynda Woods understands the situation. She is interim executive director at the downtown Y. Previously, she was senior program director.

“All of our Y programs are designed to help people, families, kids and teens develop a healthy body, mind and spirit,” she says.

“Under the COVAM program we offer a number of different programs; among them the Summer and Fall Camp Programs, a Leaders Program and a Recess Program during the school year that focuses on conflict resolution. We also have the Vertical Horizons Program — one that guides children in educational, values-based recreation and social activities guided by program goals, and a Girls (only) Program. These are in addition to the other programs and activities for families and individual members of the downtown Y.”

“In the COVAM program we partner with Urban Strategies, a non-profit agency that works to empower residents in distressed urban core neighborhoods to lead healthy, prosperous lives in thriving, self-sustaining communities.” In St. Louis, Urban Strategies is affiliated with urban neighborhood development company McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc. Their financial support helps make the COVAM program possible.

On Saturdays the Y’s Camp Program provides a half-day of structured activities for the kids — and participation is free.

“I wanted to offer the kids something different than just traditional sports,” says Coach Harris.

“That’s why I assembled our team of consulting specialists — each team member brings a different perspective, offers a different activity and represents a different type of role model for the kids.

Colleen Ewing says, “The kids are here from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and they love every minute. They like the idea of participating in different structured activities. The Camp program teaches them how to focus and be committed to learning.”

“So, I am here to counsel the children and guide them in the right direction. After all, they are going to inherit this world — and it is a mess — and they will need to be prepared for it.”

“We try to teach them how to respect and love themselves and that it is all right — it’s OK — to be whom you are. Because if you don’t love yourself it’s hard to like and respect others, and with that negative attitude it’s likely you are going to go down a destructive path.”

The Y’s Fall Camp program keeps kids busy with activities that include mentoring and teaching led by Ewing; Ruby Streate leads creative dancing lessons; photographer Lamont Shannon brings cameras and shows the kids how to use them; YMCA Counselor Dwayne Upchurch supervises recreational activities; and Earnest Hart conducts martial arts and self-improvement mentoring sessions. The kids also get a free lunch and take periodic field trips — including photo expeditions — to different places with the group on Y buses.

Belynda Woods says, “All of Coach Harris’ team members are dedicated to the YMCA’s mission and, of course, especially like working with kids. We feel very fortunate to have such a great group of mentors for this camp program. Each is very talented and committed.”

“One of the wonderful things about Earnest is that he is a great role model — his respect for others is obvious. He teaches the kids to stand tall, shake hands, speak clearly and show respect for other people. He reinforces the YMCA’s core values — caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.”

Coach Harris says, “I measure the success of this program by what the students tell me, and the positive responses from their parents. We are doing things that are really helping the kids.” As an indication of that, Coach Harris opens drawer full of letters of appreciation that he has received from kids and their parents.

One from a working single mother reads: “I appreciate the Y letting my children be part of the Saturday camp programs. Without my children being part of the programs I don’t know what my children would get into since I work and they would be left at home by themselves.

“The Y teaches my kids leadership skills as well as activities like dance, martial art, self-defense and photography — all taught by professional people who taking time to travel to the downtown Y to make sure the kids are taught correctly. The Y camp team — Mr. Upchurch, Colleen Ewing, Earnest Hart, Ms. Streate, Mr. Shannon and Coach Harris — has gone well beyond the call of duty to help train my kids in skills necessary to succeed in life — and I want to personally thank them from the bottom of my heart for these programs.”

Earnest Hart, age 55, is married with two grown children and has been working with kids from all backgrounds for more than 20 years. He says, “In St. Louis there is a lot of black-on-black crime, black kids killing each other. We need more African-American role models who do positive things, and who do it because they really want to make a positive difference.”

“Many kids see violence, death and drugs in their neighborhoods and can’t see a way out. Many kids are raised in a single-parent household, mostly by their mothers who struggle just to put food on the table.”

“It’s hard for those kids to believe they can grow up to be successful when don’t have a positive role model to give them hope and guidance. The same is true of many kids and teenagers living in white, middle class suburbs who don’t spend quality time with their parents.”

“But I get satisfaction from helping and seeing kids develop a positive self image, become independent and self reliant,” says Earnest.

“And I don’t think it makes any difference where kids live, whether in the city or the county. All kids compete and all need positive role models, but the problem is many aren’t getting them.”

“Without positive role models many kids are simply not trying — they think “Why try?” because in most cases they’ll get a little reward, a little trophy, ribbon, whatever, just for participating. So many don’t try to do their best. And without positive influences to help inspire them, they don’t develop self confidence, self esteem and self respect. And that can lead down the road to trouble.”

According to its website, the Board of Directors for the Gateway Region YMCA recently voted to relocate the current Downtown St. Louis Y at 1528 Locust to a new location in the downtown central business district. The Y has signed a letter of intent to occupy a new state-of-the-art facility at 6th and Locust Streets in the MX Building development.

“We are excited to relocate our Downtown Y to a new facility which will give our members better fitness features and amenities, and allow us to better serve the downtown community,” said Tim Helm, president and CEO of the Gateway Region YMCA.

The new location will feature a state-of-the-art fitness center, exercise rooms, new equipment, private showers, changing rooms, steam rooms, an outdoor patio for classes and social functions, and an open lobby with free Wi-Fi, coffee, gathering places and work areas. The date for opening the new branch is soon: January 2017. Until the new facility is ready, operations will continue at the current facility.

Now…Here’s more good news for Belynda Woods, Coach Harris and his team and kids served by the downtown Y Saturday Camp and COVAM programs, as well as for the public-at-large: The YMCA Community Development operation that manages outreach programs at the downtown Locust Street facility will continue to offer those programs at the new facility.

“And that is good for us,” Coach Harris says, “but especially good and especially meaningful for the kids and their parents who benefit from what we do.”