University City

Youngsters mark MLK Day with 'Hoops and Hope'

Josh Ussery is looking forward to watching his favorite Charlotte Bobcat, Kemba Walker, against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the 11-year old from Matthews understands why Monday isn't only about basketball.

By the time Ussery, and another couple dozen Charlotte-area youth, reach Time Warner Cable Arena for the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday matinee game, they will have paid tribute to the civil rights leader in their own special way.

Mecklenburg County's Park and Recreation Department is sponsoring its first Hoops and Hope service project. It is an event that combines volunteering at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture in the morning and a trip to the Bobcats home game in the afternoon.

Participants will meet at 8:30 a.m. Monday at the Naomi Drennan Recreation Center, where Kobeyeh Riley works as a recreation specialist. Riley arranged the day's activities.

"It's the first time for us combining the two aspects," Riley said. "We have done field trips before. We wanted to pair the two together since you can have civic minded activities as outings as well."

Riley said he targeted 9- to 11-year-olds because volunteer opportunities are not as plentiful for them as they are for older age groups.

He said the King holiday was a good time for the project because the youth could understand last August's dedication of the King Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"It's special because the day is celebrating Martin Luther King," said Ussery, who plays in Park and Recreation's youth basketball league, "... and I think about how he used his mind as a weapon, instead of his fists, to attack his enemies."

The Gantt Center became a logical partner because of its range of King holiday events titled "MLK Day 2012 - Finding Harmony in Difference."

Starting at 9 a.m., the Gantt Center will host events such as the viewing of a tolerance education film, production of a play titled "The Meeting: Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," and other civil-rights-themed activities.

Through a partnership with the Gantt Center, the nearby Knight Theater will also hold a day's worth of King holiday activities, including films, a musical performance and a panel discussion titled "And the Children Shall Lead."

The King holiday is a busy day at the Gantt Center. Last year, 5,700 people poured through its doors.

The center has a volunteer pool of about 300 people, some of them youth.

You may see the Hoops and Hope volunteers serving as greeters, distributing schedules of the day's events and passing out membership information.

Youth members of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte's Y Achievers program will also be volunteering at the Gantt Center on Monday.

Though many of the Hoops and Hopes service participants are youth basketball players who play some of their games at Naomi Drenan, the recreation center also will be represented at the Gantt Center by its SKY-HY Steppers step team, which is scheduled to perform.

Javon Bennett, 10, is used to volunteering. He has helped with the Kids Voting program at Mallard Creek Recreation Center.

"I think it's going to be a good opportunity to learn about the history of Charlotte and cultural events," Javon said. "I also think I will learn more about the leaders in the Charlotte area. This is another way for me to gain more volunteer experience, which is something I like to do."

The Hoops and Hope participants paid $27 to attend the Charlotte Bobcats game (registration closed Jan. 9). Volunteering at the Gantt Center is free.