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PeacePlayers in Baltimore's Park Heights uniting police and community through sports

By night, Joseph Bannerman works as a detective for the Baltimore City Police Department. But during the day, kids around Park Heights know him as “Coach Joe.”

As one of about two dozen volunteer coaches for PeacePlayers International in the Northwest Baltimore neighborhood, Bannerman helps elementary and middle school students polish their basketball skills. But off the court, he acts as a mentor, along with about 15 other city officers who help out during police shifts or on their own time.

PeacePlayers, which uses basketball to unite communities in conflict, launched in Baltimore last summer with a camp at KIPP Ujima Village Academy. It now offers programs four days a week in Park Heights, at the community center and at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary/Middle School.

On Saturday, the after-school program celebrated “equality through sport,” in honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend with a skills clinic at Langston Hughes Community Center. Dressed in black T-shirts that read “equality,” students jammed the community center’s gym, lining up to make bank shots, pass to teammates and dribble two balls at once around cones. Their coaches shouted encouragement and offered high-fives.

“The kids do more for me than I do for them. They bring me joy,” Bannerman said. “I love being able to give back to these kids. Whatever they need, I want to be there for them. … It’s not just about the basketball. It’s about building a relationship with the kids.”

The organization got its start in 2000 in South Africa, founded by Silver Spring resident Brendan Tuohey and his brother, Sean Tuohey, after Sean Tuohey played professional basketball in Northern Ireland and saw how clinics he ran helped Protestant and Catholic children in Belfast come together.

The program has expanded to Northern Ireland, Israel, the West Bank and Cyprus. Last year, the group formed a partnership with Nike, focusing on changing perceptions and developing youth leaders, and expanding to Baltimore, Detroit and Brooklyn, N.Y. The group chose to locate in Park Heights, where more than half of children live below the poverty line and tensions have flared between city residents and police.

As a PeacePlayers coach, “I’ve been able to interact with the kids in the community outside of being in a police uniform, so they get to see me in a different role other than just police,” said Rashad Hamond, a city police officer who works as a neighborhood coordinating officer in a zone that includes schools in Park Heights. “It breaks the ice and makes everybody feel more at ease.”

Monique Lambert, 14, had never played basketball before starting eighth grade last fall at Dr. Martin Luther King. But she became curious when she started seeing a PeacePlayers coach in the school cafeteria. He encouraged her to try the sport. She found out not only that she enjoyed it, but that she had untapped leadership skills. Now she is captain of the school’s girls basketball team. She credits her regular attendance at PeacePlayers.

“I never played basketball in my life, but I needed something to do,” Monique said during a break from drills on Saturday. “I hesitated about doing it, but then I was like, I need to try new things...And I had people on my team, coaches, tell me it’s OK, and if I needed help with anything they could help me.”

PeacePlayers uses sports as a tool to teach life skills, said Shawn Brown, project coordinator for the group in Baltimore.

“These kids have so much talent, so much inside that they’ve never had a chance to express,” said Brown. At the rec center, kids and their coaches talk, eat and relax as well as play. “A lot of these kids don't have father figures or male role models in their life, so these men step in.”

Kearies Dunton-El, 14, an eighth-grader at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., tries not to miss a day. He said the drills and team building have helped more than his game.

“The coaches help you out a lot with whatever you need,” Kearies said. “They encourage you to do better in class” and to set a positive example for peers.

Bannerman said he already is seeing results of placing an emphasis on leadership and on resolving conflict peacefully.

“That’s the problem we have these days in Baltimore now. Everything is about violence,” he said. “We teach them how to be leaders, how to have responsibility, how to resolve conflicts. To watch them grasp those concepts and use them ... while on the basketball court, but also in the classrooms and in the community, that’s the ultimate goal. To be better citizens and better kids.”

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lmirabella

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