RICHMOND, Va. -- From virtual learning to learning the skills to succeed on the court, children at Blacktop Kings and Queens Youth Academy called what Coach Manny Harris has poured into them "immeasurable."
He started Black Top Kings & Queens eight years ago and moved his program into the gym at 318 West 19th Street nearly six years ago.
“He’s one of the neighborhood heroes. You’ve got to come to Black Top. See, this is what we do all day. We do our work. He doesn’t play," Clarence Coleman explained. "All he wants you to do is do your work and then you play basketball. You get another opportunity, another chance."
Harris said he spends as many days at the West 19th Street gym as he can. Other student-athletes like Kharatim Taylor said what they valued most was that the gym was a safe haven, especially as homicide headlines across the city seem to dominate.
Some of the victims are friends of the very student-athletes in Coach Harris’ program. Some Harris knows personally. Taylor recounts a recent brush with gun violence.
“We were just hooping and next thing you know, bullets started flying," Taylor said. "We could have lost our lives and had to get out of the way. Manny told us to come here and we feel safe now."
Harris said it’s emotional to think financial woes brought on by COVID threaten his program.
He fell behind in rent when the pandemic forced Black Top to shut down for a few months. Now he’s scrambling to raise $8,000 before a looming mid-October court date.
“With COVID coming in March and school shutting down, we lost the after-school program including being out of the gym for two months,” Harris said.
Children in the Blacktop Kings & Queens said the program has given them the push they needed to beat the odds and succeed.
“It keeps me focused on my goal and my dreams," George Wythe High School student Daeshaun Brown explained. "This is a safe place and keeps me out of trouble. If it wasn’t here, I’d be struggling, because of where I live. I live in Hillside Court and a lot of people are dying. There are a lot of shootings. If I didn’t have Coach Manny or his gym, I don’t know where I’d be right now."
“These kids mean everything to me," Harris added. "They get discipline and structure. They get education. As you can see, we are holding a virtual academy here. They also get basketball skills and they get life skills."
Students who flock to the program daily hope the community will step in and help keep the safe place they call home open for years to come. Sentiments echoed by local minister Rosalind Hall who regularly volunteers her time at the gym.
“I definitely want to challenge people of the faith community to step up to the plate and extend the arm of God’s love to these children,” Hall said.
Now, there’s a big push on social media to help Harris get his Black Top Kings & Queens program back on track.
Local media personality Miss Community Clovia has been drumming up support on social media. She said their mission is to get 500 community members to donate $50.
The hope is that people will want to pitch in and help Harris get caught up on his rent and get ahead for a few months. This, in case the pandemic worsens in the coming months and forces Harris’ program to slow down again.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to assist Black Top Kings & Queens Youth Academy.