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Red Wings take it to the streets

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
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DETROIT – Vonetta Stevenson knows the challenges of children forced to live in horrible social and economic conditions.

The 19-year-old college student knows what it’s like to grow-up in a deplorable environment. She has seen, first-hand, the devastation of a New York community and witnessed kids her own age overdose and others killed in the crossfire of rival gangs in the South Bronx neighborhood known as Cypress Avenue.

“Where I grew-up, I knew that there was something bigger and better, and I didn’t want to end up like my brother and so many people that I know who have died,” Stevenson said. “Somehow God used that with me to turn me to Him.”

Stevenson is in Southwest Detroit this week with other teen leaders from Urban Harvest Ministries (UHM), which is partnering with the Red Wings and assistant general manager Jim Nill to host street hockey games. The goal is to instill self-worth and show inter-city kids that there’s something more to life than the violence, which many of them are accustom.

On Wednesday, Nill and the team’s marketing department took to a church parking lot on the city’s southwest side. They brought with them plenty of street hockey equipment – sticks, balls, nets and goalie pads – and invited some inter-city children to try it out.
Red Wings Street Hockey

“First of all, I’m a strong Christian, and anytime you can come out and affect somebody’s life, especially these kids that’s so important,” Nill said. “If we can touch one of these young kid’s hearts and point them in the right direction, then it’s worth the price of coming out here.”

It was a festive atmosphere with the speakers of a nearby parked Dodge Durango, and fittingly so, blaring the Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ it the Streets” as kids of all ages gathered on the sun-faded asphalt black top to take slap shots and make glove saves.

“This is something that we call Hope for the City,” said Dr. Tom Grassano, UHM director. “In a nutshell, we’re trying to help churches and ministries get out of their four walls and connect with people in the community. And obviously, we want to connect with kids.

“We’re just trying to bring people from the suburbs and the inter-city together, from many races and denominations, to try to do positive things in communities, including outreach events, sports events, etc., for kids. And through that, we not only provide activities for the kids, but we can identify needs in the homes and addresses those needs to truly empower people.”

Grassano is a metro Detroit native, who has spent the last two decades in the Bronx. He understands the perils that face the people of the Bronx and those in Detroit’s impoverished areas.
Jim Nill talks with youth leader Vonetta Stevenson.
“We’ve been in the south Bronx for 18 years, and the situation is the same in Southwest Detroit and many other areas as it is there,” he said. “There is a tremendous amount of hopelessness, a lot of despair and a lack of opportunity. Think about what it means to a kid to get into a hockey program with a coach who actually cares about him. … It makes a huge difference for the kids.”

Urban Harvest works with approximately 40 churches in metro Detroit, and Grassano said the Red Wings are the first NHL club to support his organization’s effort.

“The Red Wings have taken the lead in this and they’ve really caught the eye of a lot of the other teams in the NHL,” Grassano said. “We’re now doing stuff with the New York Rangers in the South Bronx now, and it has drawn a lot of attention.

“It’s unfortunate that a wonderful sport like hockey has not connected with kids in the inter-city. They’ve got the Hoop Dreams and everything, but they haven’t connected with other sports, or very few, so it’s just great to see the kids come out in their Henrik Zetterberg jerseys today.”

Besides introducing hockey to the kids, Grassano and his youth leaders hope their Detroit visit accomplishes more than proving play time.

“From a more eternal prospective, I hope that the kids that are not connected to this church here – that cares about them – get connected. That their families get connected, that their needs are addressed and that they get into a good after-school program or tutoring program or something.”

Programs are more than what Stevenson received growing up, which is why she chose to stay behind. She could have jumped at opportunities to leave bad childhood memories behind, but she turned down those offers to play college basketball, including a scholarship from the University of South Carolina.

Instead, the girl, who watched drugs and crime splinter her family, decided to stay and help those who need the most help – the children. Now in a safer situation, she’s studying computer information at Lehman College.

“If I had gone, I would have stopped doing this,” said Stevenson, pointing to the kids. “Not having a family to love me and not knowing what it’s like to have a mom and a dad care for me, to really show me and teach me how to grow-up. That’s why it’s important for me to do what I do with kids like this; to give them something that I didn’t have from my parents.

“I’m pretty sure most of them have come from the same background as me.”

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