Vernon H. Wolst Jr. (Baltimore Sun / August 29, 2011)

Vernon H. Wolst Jr., founder of Project Survival, an education and mentoring program that used basketball and other sports to help improve reading and math skills, died Aug. 22 of a massive heart attack at Northwest Hospital.

The Catonsville resident was 75.

Vernon Hoskins Wolst Jr., the son of a laborer and a factory worker, was born and raised in Raleigh, N.C., and was a 1953 graduate of Washington High School.

After graduating in 1957 from what is now Morgan State University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in music, Mr. Wolst served in the Army, attaining the rank of lieutenant.

Mr. Wolst worked for the Community Action Agency and later Urban Services. He established Project Survival in 1967.

"Project Survival is not a program that was planned," he told The Baltimore Sun in a 1991 interview. "It more or less developed."

Mr. Wolst explained in the article that initially when he established the program, there was a lack of organized youth activities in East Baltimore. He formed a 13-and-under boys basketball league and later added 15-and-under, 18-and-under and girls leagues.

"We were developing in Baltimore a system of developing highly skilled basketball players, whether it was intentional or not," he said in the 1991 interview.

He said that many coaches from Division I colleges came to watch league games at the University of Baltimore, where the program originally had its headquarters.

Mr. Wolst realized that while many of the players were athletically talented, they were not academically prepared, so in 1974 he added a college prep program.

"I remember one interview where a coach asked one of our young men who had graduated from high school that summer what he wanted to know about 'X University,'" said Mr. Wolst. "The question from the young man was: 'What kind of sneakers do you get?'"

He added: "So we had a combination not just of poor grades and poor test scores, but we had a problem of high school graduates being totally unprepared to even ask questions in an intelligent manner. So we decided that we had to take some of our resources out of basketball and put them in education."

Mr. Wolst's program was a classroom activity for students in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, who planned to go on to college and keep on playing sports. But he soon found out that the only athletes enrolling in the program were those who were doing well academically, not those that needed help.

"The guy with all the basketball talent who needed to be there didn't enroll," he said in the newspaper article. "And if he did enroll, it was because a coach or somebody had made them enroll. So we put basketball into the program to entice them."

Mr. Wolst sensed another need and wanted to reach younger students earlier, so in 1979, he added a six-week academic/basketball camp that was designed for children between ages 7 and 12.

"Very early [in their school lives], players find all their rewards are for what they do on the basketball court, not for what they do in the classroom," said Mr. Wolst. "It falls upon the adults to make decisions on what is important for the young men and women they influence."

Mr. Wolst placed a heavy emphasis on improving math and reading skills while at the same time included classes in self-awareness, black history and civics.

For those not interested in basketball, three other sports were added: soccer, lacrosse and table tennis.

"We are able to give boys and girls who have fallen down in their academics some one-on-one tutoring because the classes are a little smaller," said Mr. Wolst in the newspaper interview. "You really do see the growth of the children in the summer."

The program, which did not receive any government funding, relied entirely on Mr. Wolst's continuing fundraising efforts and corporate support, which was used to pay for teachers, educational supplies, athletic equipment, trophies, basketball officials and scorekeepers.