About 150 teens at the Southeast Missouri State University Student Recreation Center were devouring pizza and anticipating Thursday night's basketball game against Tennessee Tech when a group of five tall, young men dressed in white and red basketball uniforms quietly walked into the gym. Before long, the players were talking with eager young men, posing for photos, and just chillin' before the game started.
The teenagers, most of them boys, were at Southeast for DYS night. The boys are in the custody of the Missouri Division of Youth Services and currently living in one of several group homes in Southeast Missouri, including the Girardot Center and Echo Day Treatment Center, both in Cape Girardeau.
The university's Department of Criminal Justice and athletic department teamed up, as they do yearly, with DYS to treat the teens to pizza and a basketball game. Dave Bumpus, owner of the Jackson Domino's, provides the pizza every year, said Linda Keena, an instructor with the Department of Criminal Justice.
It is the university's way of reaching out to some youths who have gotten in trouble and now are learning that there's another life ahead of them if they take advantage of it.
Before the team left to get ready for the game, Ryan "Fuzzy" Belcher, one of the players, swallowed his anxiety about talking in front of people.
"I want you to know, whatever you did in the past, right now is the time to change," Belcher told the teenagers. "It's time to move forward with your life. Everybody gets a second chance. Go on from there."
If the teens think Belcher is cool because he's an athlete and he came out to hang with them for a while, that's good enough for now. Keena said the university and the DYS hope that later when these young people look back on this night, they'll realize Belcher is cool for other reasons.
"Many of these kids don't have a high school diploma," she said. "They're staying in a facility until they complete it. They've never been taught the importance of an education. We like for them to see there are some benefits to staying in school. Besides it's the law."
The Department of Criminal Justice and the athletic department want the young people to see that the team members are not only athletes, but they're also students with goals. Belcher wants to be an FBI agent. Some of the other team members, she said, overcame adversities like the teenagers had that led them to where they are. The athletes are proof that people can get out of an unfortunate situation and take charge of their own lives.
"We try to make them feel welcome and comfortable," said assistant coach Robert Guster.
Guster said that during his own growing up years, he faced some challenges. Hanging out with some college athletes got him on the right track, academically, on the basketball court, "and doing things right day to day. Each kid has his days, but these kids have days that are more extreme. We want to help get them on the right track."
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