Deerfield Run's late-night program offers teens safe summer

In the weight room at the Deerfield Run Community Center, 12-year-old Ashaki Gittens-Smith, wearing red gym shorts and a red tank top, is trying out the exercise machines with a friend: running on a treadmill for a couple of minutes, walking on an elliptical trainer, lifting a dumbbell or two.

Down the hall in the gym, meanwhile, his two older brothers are playing a fast-paced game of basketball. Fourteen-year-old Adisa, his white T-shirt soaked with sweat, is darting around the court tirelessly, often with the ball; 16-year-old Ayinde, taller and wearing a sleeveless "Deerfield Run Mustangs" shirt, spends more time under the backboard.

In other words, it's a typical summer weekend night for the three Gittens-Smith brothers from Laurel, all of whom are regulars at the South Laurel community center's Safe Summer program.

It's also a typical night for the program itself, which usually attracts 25-30 teens and preteens for its free, late-night offerings of sports, games, dancing, music and meals — all in a safe, structured, supervised environment.

"We're trying to get them involved in good social activities that are going to better them," said Natalie Paul, coordinator of programs at Deerfield Run. "We want to keep kids off the streets, keep them engaged at something that's going to move their careers and lives forward, maybe teach them something new. Everything is very, very planned out."

The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission launched Safe Summer five years ago in a smattering of Prince George's County community centers, according to Lori Smith, a youth program specialist with the commission. Its popularity prompted county recreation officials to expand the program to include 24 centers the following year, she said, and Deerfield Run was one of the centers added.

The program is held Friday and Saturday nights, from June 15 to Aug. 10. It runs from 10 p.m. to midnight, and follows the Xtreme Teen program, which has a similar target audience and is held the same nights from 7 to 10 p.m.

Deerfield Run is the only center in Laurel offering Safe Summer.

"That area has a captive audience," Smith said. "It has a great population of teens and young people."

Besides offering teens a safe recreational activity, Safe Summer is meant to provide youngsters with "strong, positive relationships with adults other than their parents," Smith said. "The more (of those relationships), the better for the young person," she added.

Game time

On a recent Saturday night, the 30-or-so teens and preteens at Deerfield Run were supervised by a half-dozen center staffers. A Maryland-National Capital Park Police officer also was on hand, although the night was trouble-free.

A planned activity — night hikes, a recording studio workshop, roller skating — is offered most nights. The activity for this night was basket weaving.

The instructor failed to show up, however, so the youngsters made do with other activities.

They played Wii games; used the weight room; had a free box lunch of chicken salad sandwiches, coleslaw, plums and milk; and the staff organized a few spirited games of dodgeball in the gym, which involved — and delighted — every youngster at the center.

Standing on the sideline, counselor Alice Gaines, 33, helped to enforce what rules the game and the program have: "You're out; sit down; you got hit," she would shout, and, "Watch your language." Mostly, she smiled and laughed nearly as much as the kids.

"I grew up in this center," said Gaines, explaining that she started coming to Deerfield Run when she was 14. "So this is awesome, working here."

Gaines, who still lives in Laurel and works full-time in sales for a mobile phone company, works part-time during summers at the Safe Summer program. She knows how valuable such programs can be for teenagers, she said, and considers working there a way of giving back.

"If it wasn't for this place, I wouldn't have gone to school [college]," she said. "I learned so much here, got a lot of direction. So I make sure I come here, to be with these kids … and here and there [offer] some words of wisdom."

Besides the other games, the youngsters at Safe Summer play plenty of basketball. Three-on-three half-court games, five-on-five full-court games, impromptu shooting contests — they play them all, typically with boundless energy.

Several Safe Summer participants, in fact, cited basketball as their main reason for coming to the program, although they conceded other attractions as well: the weight room, Zumba and Wii games.

"I like playing basketball," said Ayinde Gittens-Smith, who said he has been attending for the past couple of years. "And I like hanging out with the other kids."

"I'll be balling, showing these young guys how to ball," said Isaiah Frances, also 16, who walks to the center from his home nearby. "We come here; we ball; we talk."

"You can play ball here and stay out of trouble," added Malik Small, 16. "You can stay active and stay out of trouble."

All three, and a few more teens interviewed, said they seldom miss a Friday or Saturday summer night at the center.

Happy parents

Parents, meanwhile, seem as enamored with Safe Summer as their children.

"He loves it and I love it," said Christy Funk, 32, of Laurel, as she sat in her car at midnight, waiting to pick up her 15-year-old son, Rashaun Chapman (who left her plenty of time to talk as he was reluctant to leave his basketball game).

"It keeps the kids off the streets, keeps them from getting into bad stuff," she added. "And it keeps them active during the summer."

"It's a good thing for kids," said Latisha Smith, as she and her husband, Matthew, picked up their three children. "It keeps them out of trouble. And, it gives the parents a break."

This year's Safe Summer program ends Saturday, Aug. 10, with a party for program participants countywide at the Rollingcrest Splash Pool, in Hyattsville.

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