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Almost every Monday starts the same for Amanda Harter. The Lifetime Sports Academy receptionist answers a call from someone asking how safe the McMillen Park facility is for their kids.
"I tell them my own son is here,'' Harter said.
And then she'll often forward the call to LSA Safety Coordinator Tasco Williams who further tries to assure the parent his or her child will be safe.
Because the park is in an area with the worst reputation and crime statistics in Fort Wayne, LSA workers expect and welcome the questions. They aren't offended, because they want to provide the answers.
"If I were a parent I would be concerned, especially when you pick up the newspaper and so much is happening in the area which we are bounded by,'' LSA Director Tom Hogan said. "They do have some concerns. I enjoy the fact that they ask the question because I want to reassure them and confirm to them that we are not having things like that taking place here, and we never have.''
The LSA is in the midst of its 16th year providing children ages 8 to 18 training in tennis, golf and swimming – sports that can be participated in throughout a lifetime. Each year approximately 1,600 children take part for free, learning, having fun and earning free equipment.
With help from Jerry Fox of The Journal Gazette, former Fort Wayne Safety Director Payne Brown, and Phil Bennett and Bob Arnold from the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department, Georgetown developer Tom Jehl opened the Lifetime Sports Academy in 1998. Since then, more than 20,000 children have taken free lessons.
"McMillen got picked because of its location and its amenities,'' Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department Director of Leisure Services Perry Ehresman said. "We knew we wanted to do golf, tennis and swimming, and the only thing we had to do was update the tennis courts. We targeted this area because we wanted it to be a free program, and we wanted to give kids who didn't have the opportunity for those three expensive sports and the opportunity to be close to home. Tom was looking for an area that would serve inner-city children.''
Judging only by the increase in tennis, swimming and golf athletes at several area high schools, the steady numbers and the distribution of free equipment, the program has been a huge success. It succeeds on every level, even the unexpected ones.
"We have children come to this site from all different nationalities, cultures and ethnic backgrounds who have never been in a larger group setting, and then they are set free,'' Hogan said. "It doesn't take more than a couple of days before they acclimate themselves to the staff, to the other children; they make new friends and get some bonding going on.
"They are so glad that they came because they are able to find out they can do things on their own without parents being around; they can be trusted and feel really, really safe about what they are doing. In the meantime, they pick up some valuable social skills and some skills that they are going to have for a lifetime.''
The staff is made up mostly of longtime Fort Wayne Community Schools teachers. Of the 22 employees, at least 15 have been there more than 10 years and most for all 16 years.
They become part of the kids' lives. Williams has been invited by LSA students to more than 400 graduation parties over the years.
"We have to go through a battery of things to come back year after year,'' said Williams, the in-school suspension director at Snider High School. "It's all right with me. I have no problem with it at all because I understand why. You are dealing with children. We know what's right and wrong.''
Almost every employee brings his or her own children or grandchildren to the academy, and each knows the kids are looking up to them, begging for attention, asking for boundaries and listening for instruction and the love of caring.
"We often have children who look to us as father figures,'' said Hogan, a teacher at Wayne. "You can almost see it in their eyes that they look up to us and look forward to being here and having somebody giving them discipline and guidance, telling them what's right and what's wrong and being reassuring to them.''
There are also kids who return or keep in touch a few years after graduating the program, the kids who have grown into adults and are infiltrating every part of the community. Every employee has stories like that.
"When we first started LSA, we sort of thought we were just going to be a sports camp, but we realized early on that the mentoring aspect of what we do was going to be just as important,'' golf director Rick Hemsoth said. "The rewards you get from the kids, you may never know you've even touched the kids, but three or four years later they come up and say it's the best thing they ever did. That makes you want to keep coming back.''
One of the most interesting aspects of the program is how many parents also hang around the park. They aren't worried about their children's safety as much as they like being around so many happy kids. They want to be part of what is happening, and seeing so many smiles can be addictive.
The only downside is the questions about the surrounding area.
There are three golf carts patrolling the grounds, and after one or two weeks Williams knows everybody by name. If a child is walking alone, he'll ride up for a chat. If somebody is sitting in a car, he'll hang around until they leave. He's got better radar for trouble than the National Weather Service, and he's even more aggressive about looking for problems.
He's also got an extended security force in the children. They all know and trust him and are quick to let him know if they suspect something.
"If I see anything suspect, I get another employee and we'll sit there,'' he said. "After a while, I've got the license plate, what they've got on ... everything. You can never take anything for granted. As long as we're visible, that deters a lot.''
According to Fort Wayne Police Department statistics, there is little actionable activity in the park during the times when the Lifetime Sports Academy is running.
Still, the academy's early numbers have been down this year, and administrators wonder if it's the gas prices or the problems surrounding the park. There are also still a great number of people in the city who know nothing of the program.
"Unfortunately, because of how news works, when an incident happens on Abbott Street, McMillen Park is referenced in the newspaper or the newscast,'' Hemsoth said. "The positive side gets forgotten.''
But Hogan is quick to say the Lifetime Sports Academy is a safe haven in the area, an oasis providing hope to children.
"Nowhere in this world is anything perfect, and nowhere is anyplace 100 percent safe, but in the past 16 years I can truly say this is one of the safest places that a child could come to,'' he said.