When you think of a superhero, what comes to mind? Oftentimes, people envision someone with superhuman powers soaring through the sky doing heroic deeds. Within our own communities, there are everyday people with superpowers, though at first glance, we may miss their heroism. Too often, the people on the ground doing good aren’t recognized for their heroic powers. What would happen if we supported the people at the grassroots instead of just the grasstops? The person who was never in it for themselves, but found their calling by way of being present for another, and through that commitment transformed into a hero.
For Donald Curtis, founder and CEO of SOUL, the desire to help others started with his brother who said, “I’ll play basketball, if you coach me.” And, for Jimmie Jenkins, founder and CEO of ManPower and Co-Founder of The Garden School, that person was his best friend who was killed when he was a teenager. For the last two decades, Donald and Jimmie have been building communities of support for youth and families living in Wards 7 and 8 through athletics, mentorship, and being real life examples of hope for what is possible.
You may not catch Curtis or Jenkins with a cape on, but look out for a man with a hoodie, jersey, or fly checkered tailor-made suit, and remember – they, too, have superpowers.
The Bridge, coordinated a meet up between Jimmie and Donald at Spaces, Donald’s Northeast based co-working office. Joined by their children and Jimmie’s wife, Janae Hughes, Spaces was the perfect location for the kids to play while the two fathers had a rare moment to sit back as peers in the work to have a heart-to-heart to the tune of children’s laughter and chatter in the background.
JIMMIE – How did you get into coaching?
DONALD – I went away to school and my brother got into some trouble. So, my grandmother called me like, your brother is messing up. You need to come home. I came home.
Donald’s 7-year-old son interrupts – “I spilled hot chocolate.” While cleaning, he continues.
DONALD – Sorry, so – my grandmother called me and asked me to come home. I was on my way to Houston for grad school. When I came home, I went to his basketball games – the final two of the season, and I told him this is gonna be it. You’ll be done. He was like, “I wanna go play college basketball, but I ain’t got no looks, I ain’t got no offers.” So I was like, let’s take a look at AAU. We go through this whole process arid find a team. We in Virginia. He was like, “I’ll play, but I don’t like the coach. If you coach, I’ll play.” So, I came on as Assistant Coach and I just loved IL, I was like I miss this. When he graduated, I just kept on coaching. It was one of those things that kept me. I found purpose in this connection right here (points at the word SOUL on the heart of his shirt.) I just wanted to do that one thing in that moment. So, that’s how I got into coaching.
JIMMIE – So, this might sound crazy – but one of my best friends was killed. Me and my best friend and my brother were about 15,16 years old. And the younger guys around my way were about 10 and 11. So, what we used to do is coach them. We used to like make jerseys and write on them with crayons. So, I always been kinda like coaching, I had that already in me.
When I graduated from high school, I didn’t go right onto college.) had my first child. I felt like I lost my scholarship. So, the school reached out and put me on facilities and they wanted to me to coach the girls varsity team. I didn’t know, then, I would bring them to play offs for two years. I left went to college, and when I graduated I came back and I realized there was something missing. For three years in a row, I saw great talent not go to the next level.
DONALD – Yeah
JIMMIE – So, I said maybe I need to get involved. I was doing my summer camps and then I started coaching at my old high school, which was now a middle school, and I asked him, “Can I coach?” They was like, “We don’t do sports.” I mean, I literally walked into the gym with the COO of the building and said, “Look at this, these are the same banners up from when I was playing, we were, ya know, a sports driven school, look, we need to get a sports program back here.” This was Perry Street and they trusted, they invested into it.
DONALD – OK
JIMMIE – Something I noticed in high school, was a lot of them didn’t have their dad in the household. And now a days, they don’t even have the uncles or big brothers like we used to have. It’s bigger than the X’s and O’s – it’s basically teaching them the “why” about life, and that’s why I am into coaching.
DONALD – I think the transition for me, was like, when growing up in poverty or a certain way, you don’t know it, it’s just the way it is. And, then, like, you have a little bit more than the person next to you, and you’re like, “he’s poor, I’m aight.” –JIMMIE – Yeah, yeah DONALD – And then years later, I got to college – I didn’t realize I was in poverty, I took a course in college. It was like poverty in America means making like $10,000 or less per year. I was like dang that’s tricky because we make less than that. I did the FAFSA , I filled out the information for my mom, but you don’t realize it.
JIMMIE – Yup
DONALD – You realize something is different in those environment when you get to school because they adjust a little better. They get this thing in class that I don’t get. They network a little differently than the way I network. Like with me, I went to school. After school, I would come back home and walk with my brother. When I started coaching, I didn’t want to necessarily coach basketball, I was there for academic support. I just wanted to make sure these guys get what they need.
JIMMIE – Yeah, Yeah
DONALD – And, then over time things progressed and this and that. It’s crazy, the evolution –
JIMMIE – It is, man. And (sigh) ya know.. So, my thing – and I don’t really talk about it, but I had a kid I met his 10th grade year. You know you kinda understand a kid is going through something. The family was struggling al the lime. He came to me to talk about it. ANd I said, God had positioned him to feel comfortable enough for him to loll me about his situation. His situation was a lot worse off than I thought it was.
DONALD – Mhmm
JIMMIE – Where I had to reach out to other folks to get resources to help the family. He got to senior year, and he was only able to play one game. What happened was – people don’t understand – as you work with kids and their trauma and what they going through. It’s just really making the trauma a little worse than it was. Because now he is a senior, he’s older, he’s got more pressure with college, but he is still going home to that…
DONALD – Yeah
JIMMIE – And now, he’s having those issues where he feel like don’t really want it to be known he’s struggling, so he starts acting out.
DONALD – Mhmm
JIMMIE – And the school didn’t understand, but I understood. So, I told him, I said look – they gonna take you off the team, right? And you gonna accept that, right? But the reality is this, as me saying I’m your coach and committed to you, I’m gonna get you in school so you can play college hall. At the time I wasn’t sure, but I knew that’s something I had to say. We went long days long nights. Now he’s on the college floor, he’s at Cheney.
DONALD – Uh huh, yeah
JIMMIE – It’s amazing how we are used to navigate folks through a different route that we wish we would have had.
DONALD – Even with the whole trauma topic. I coach at HD Woodson. So we got these, ya know, young guys who go off to college. We can get them there, right? The challenge is when they get there. I think, That’s what people often miss, they think oftentimes what we do is one dimensional.
JIMMIE – Yup…
DONALD – What we tryin’ to do really is create this whole skill set that they can use when they are there, where they can survive without us being there. The challenge is that they start so far behind it’s serious, ya know, I can point to rosters in schools and tell how many are in school, jail, here or there. You have teams that have won championships and I can say 8-9 of those players are dealing with the criminal justice system, or this, or that. Everything we provide tries to develop their skill set but there’s so many other things that are not addressed.
JIMMIE – Yup, yup
DONALD – Like yeah, the person went here, but when they got there, and dealt with racism, or felt disconnected from their peers in a way. Then when they came back home, and everything they feel connected to is there for them, the people that supported them when they had nothing, still are supporting them. Honestly, when they come back home it’s like, “Yeah you did that thing,” but in our mind it’s like you didn’t finish. And I know when I would come back, there were these uncles like, “You need to be doing this.” But now it’s so blurred.
JIMMIE – I love that we doin’ this because a lot of the things you doin’, I’m doin. We be in the same city, the same area. But a lot of times, the labor is so intense, so we don’t have time to connect with the folks who doin’ the thing we’re doin’, because we’re doin’ so much. The time that we do have left over, we gotta pour that into our woman, our kids, and our families. So, we don’t get to breathe on each other and we uplift each other. This is a blessing, it’s bigger than this segment. It’s good to hear and share with another brother on all levels.
DONALD – I’m all about collaboration, starting something from the ground up… When I think about SOUL, at the beginning – no one really understands what you’re doing, so you get a lot more criticism than support. Then when you get to year 3, 4, or 5 – people wanna start giving you words of wisdom. But, I think about the first early years and I ask, “what would have made this process easier?” If you had people who already had this going on and we had round tables. I noticed more affluent organizations have these conversations all the time, and they raise money. At the ground level there’s not a whole lot of that going on. People often think we are fighting for the same thing, And, we are not. We are fighting for the same thing. But, we need to be thinking how can we take our resources and put them together at the city and national level. We are just meeting each other and talking about what we both have in common and that is happening throughout different pockets in the country. How can we have that platform that says this is what we need, this is what we want to have done, this is how government can be more accountable to what we need to have accomplished in our communities?
JIMMIE – This is where we miss out on the accountability piece, because leaders, stakeholders, folks all around who have say so in the dollar amounts going to people like us, they feel like they can put this little money here or a little money there, just because we don’t have nothing comprehensive. We don’t have, the vast majority of us at the table together, talking about something comprehensive. If they feel like we can get 20 folks over here to argue about this three hundred thousand and 20 folks over there doing the same thing. Everybody’s distracted so now everybody is beefin’ with each other about this three hundred thousand, when we could all be having 80 people at the table, talking about three hundred million. That’s what we are missing, that roundtable conversation. Then, some people gettin’ tired of the conversation, and are asking, “what can we do right now?” This conversation itself motivates me to know we got somebody else doing this work.
DONALD – Yes, same – I definitely wanna follow up.