CAMDEN – Bryan Morton may have just gotten his endless summer.
The founder of North Camden Little League, which serves more than 800 city children, told a room packed with Camden’s elite and some of the Philadelphia region’s most renowned athletes Wednesday that he and his fellow coaches “pack up at the end of the season and begin worrying about our players during that off time when we are not connected with them.”
“Most of us just wish for an endless summer, another run on the basketball court, another game, anything just to keep our players and our families close,” he said.
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A $1 million grant from the Cooper Foundation, AmeriHealth New Jersey and the Norcross Foundation, will fund the creation of the year-round Camden Health and Athletic Association, serving city youth through high school.
The association is “intended to organize youth athletic events and seasons and to provide health care through Cooper to young residents” of the city, said Cooper Chairman George E. Norcross III in an interview earlier Wednesday.
The association will complement and assist, rather than replace, the existing organizations like Morton’s North Camden Little League, the Centerville Simbas and Whitman Park Tigers football teams and Camden Youth Soccer Club.
“This is intended to replicate what already exists in almost every suburb,” Norcross said.
The executive chairman of Marlton insurance firm Conner Strong & Buckelew first alluded to the possibility of a new youth organization in February at a dedication for the gymnasium at KIPP Cooper Norcross school, when he said, “The citizens of this city should have the same things that I enjoyed growing up. … People like me take it for granted that an athletic program in every season of the year is available,” he added, mentioning the Pennsauken Youth Athletic Association. “That doesn’t exist in many parts of this city.”
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Speaking at Cooper University Hospital Wednesday, Norcross and his younger brother, Congressman Donald Norcross, both recalled their days playing with Pennsauken teams, and lamented how such programs are not available to all of the children of Camden.
“Camden has always been known as having some of the greatest athletes in southern New Jersey,” including Dwight Hicks, who went on to the NFL, and Billy Hunter and Dajuan Wagner, former NBA players, all in attendance Wednesday. “I remember a couple of their players batted away my layups,” George Norcross joked.
“One of the things that we became well aware of in this city is that a comprehensive youth organization of this nature doesn’t exist anymore. There are pockets. … But clearly the facilities don’t exist at the level it should, the organization doesn’t exist in the way that it should.
“People are tired of hearing about hope. They want action, they want results.”
Growing up, Donald Norcross said, the Pennsauken Youth Athletic Association’s offerings were about more than sports.
“It was about bringing the family together, it was about the game, it was about life,” he said.
Susan Bass Levin, CEO of the Cooper Foundation, said the association would form an advisory board, hire a full-time athletic director and other staff, and begin work to determine the needs of the community and the best ways to address those needs.
“We’ll also help address community health issues, including asthma, obesity and nutrition, especially for young people,” she said, adding that Cooper would provide health screenings for boys and girls who participate in sports.
Sports initially will include boys’ and girls’ soccer, basketball in the winter, and boys’ baseball and girls’ softball next spring.
“The goal is to have teams playing soccer in the fall,” George Norcross said, adding, “so we’ll have to move quickly, since registration would have to start in August.”
Norcross said letters would go out to every household in the city next week, informing families of the association, asking for their input and recruiting volunteers.
“Our mission is to eliminate the costs for parents” like uniforms, fees and equipment, Norcross said, “because we know costs are sometimes an impediment to some of the city’s more challenged families.”
In addition to the $1 million in initial seed money, Norcross said, the stakeholders would continue fundraising efforts to add new athletic facilities and improve existing ones, and expand offerings to wrestling and football within a few years.
Camden County, Levin said, would undertake a complete inventory of athletic fields and facilities in the city to determine what the needs are. The association would centralize the facilities reservation system, as well as facilitating equipment and uniform purchases.
Camden County Police and Sheriff’s officers will volunteer as coaches, mentors and officials, providing another avenue for community engagement that’s been a cornerstone of Police Chief Scott Thomson’s philosophy.
“This is a long-term investment to promote peace” in city neighborhoods, he said.
Deputy Chief Joe Wysocki, who heads the department’s anti-gang outreach, agreed.
“This is outstanding, to give kids another avenue and more positive reinforcement, and there’s no one better to be a part of this than Bryan Morton,” he said.
“When we plan, we don’t have to plan with hope being 90 percent of it,” Morton said. “We can plan with the expectation that implementation will be part of it. We can look at adding pieces to our program,” like academic assistance and more help for parents.
He’s hoping to get volunteers from across the city’s business landscape as well as from its neighborhoods.
“The opportunity for kids to rub shoulders with CEOs, with superintendents, with police chiefs, with district commanders is there, and it’s really awesome from someone who years ago began with an idea and just built it on the fly.
“For people to see that sports can be a hook for better things. … It’s validating, but in a humbling way: Yeah, they got it.”
Phaedra Trethan: (856) 486-2417; firstname.lastname@example.org