Daniel Whyte hopes to show the children of Ellicott City's Mount Ida neighborhood how to turn their hopes and dreams into reality.
"You see kids in the community who don't believe they have power," said the program specialist for the county Department of Recreation and Parks. "They have power. I'm teaching them they have power."
Under the supervision of Mr. Whyte, a handful of teen-agers from the low-income neighborhood have created a club for youngsters 11 to 14 that stresses responsibility, hard work and positive attitude.
"It's about getting together and keeping people off the streets," said Keith Doughty, the 13-year-old president of the club. "We show positive attitude for kids in the community."
The group calls itself Club R.E.A.L., which stands for Recreation, Education And Leisure. It meets at the Roger Carter Neighborhood Center in Mount Ida.
Mr. Whyte and the youngsters hope to use the club as a vehicle to meet local and state leaders, and even travel, citing Chicago and Los Angeles as favorite destinations.
"It's learning how to do things outside of your community with resources inside your community," Mr. Whyte said.
The former tight end for the Detroit Lions football team said he started the club because many low-income children in Mount Ida have few opportunities to learn leadership skills within the community.
Mr. Whyte said he based Club R.E.A.L. on his own experiences as a teen-ager in Wilmington, Del., where he participated in a YMCA club that sought to instill character and pride in local youngsters.
"It gave us an opportunity to meet outstanding people in the community," he said. "That really gave me a structure" and ability "to understand that kids at that age could accomplish something."
Since establishing the club three weeks ago, the Ellicott City youngsters have created a code of conduct, elected six officers and begun planning a St. Patrick's Day Dance.
Each week, the youngsters are responsible for conducting a meeting, creating an agenda, taking minutes and collecting dues.
In the process, they have learned about respect, cooperation and patience. During a meeting last week, for example, they struggled to create a policy on probation for disorderly members. At times, the discussion dissolved into a free-for-all, as the teen-agers struggled to voice their opinions.
Mr. Whyte intervened more than once to calm the group and show the fledgling officials how to introduce discussion matters and recognize speakers.
"You've got to sit in a meeting and not show attitude," he told the teen-agers.
Mr. Whyte compared the club leaders' responsibilities to those facing President Clinton. "He has to run the country. He can't sit back, and mope and pout," he told them. "The same thing here. You have to keep a positive attitude for an hour and a half."
Parents of club members said they already have noticed a difference in their children's attitudes.
"It's the first time I've seen them this enthused about something," said Debbie Bowie, who has two sons and a daughter in the club.
"They need a chance to be heard, and sometimes adults stifle that," Ms. Bowie said. "These kids are productive children who can go on to become productive teen-agers and productive adults."
The youngsters said they have learned a lot about themselves in the past month.
"You have to have a lot of patience," said Trenae Groomes, 11.
Others said they have learned that policy-making is a complex affair that requires a lot of cooperation.
"Some people are hard to get along with," said Takeya Kelly, 12.
Mr. Whyte sees progress. "They're gradually seeing themselves come together," he said.
In addition to the St. Patrick's dance, club members plan to attend County Council meetings and seek a meeting with Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Eventually, they hope to travel and to attend Broadway plays.
"I sold them on a reality of a dream," Mr. Whyte said. "Anything is possible, depending on how hard they work."