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Every city needs a Bob White

by Archives February 28, 2007

For 31 years, the West End Sports Association has been transforming the lives of thousands of impoverished youth. For Bob White, the sports association he built from the ground up is just another milestone in his quest to better the lives of the underprivileged kids and families around him.

Angered by the rampant poverty that seemed to have a stranglehold over his community, White began working to change the futures of kids in Little Burgundy and the West End in the 1960s. Poverty and ignorance still anger him to this day. “There are 11-year-old kids out there who can’t read or write. They can’t read! How?!”

White is not the first in his family to give back to his community. His father Benjamin used to feed newly-arrived immigrants out of the back of his grocery store, knowing they had no money to pay him. When black WWII veterans returning from the war could not get work as cabbies, he helped to create the Veteran Taxi Association, enabling many to get work. Benjamin also enrolled his young children in sports programs at the YMCA, which “opened up a whole new world for us,” said Bob.

Bob left home in his teens for a water polo tournament in New York City and soon found work at a local YMCA as a lifeguard and aquatic director. Every Saturday night, White would walk down to 125th and 7th Ave. and hear lectures by Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X. He began doing charity work with Reverend Adam Clayton Powell.

Bob came back to Montreal in 1966 to work in his father’s store. Using contacts he had made over the years, he began to make things happen. Bob thought that everyone should have a chance to have a “happy holiday”, and, making a few phone calls, he awoke one morning to a pile of frozen turkeys outside his house. In the Christmas of 1974, one of the families that Bob had given a turkey to suffered a tragedy. Helen Chandler, a single mother of five, was fatally wounded in a car accident. Bobby raised the money needed to pay for funeral expenses.

One day in the summer of 1976, Bob began to build the West End Sports Association (WESA), starting from the ground up. Beginning with a basketball net he fashioned out of an old tire, some cement and a rim, he built the association that was to give hundreds of kids growing up in Montreal’s West End the means to a better life. He didn’t just teach the kids who showed up how to play ball, he mentored them and taught them the life skills they would need.

“I’m out here hustling for these kids, getting them food, clothing, scholarships. I’ve been doing this for years. I don’t get any money for this. I came up the same way as many of these kids, so why not help.”

WESA’s aim “is to orient the youth away from the negativity and hopelessness of the streets and point them towards the light of life itself. We have no illusions about turning around every child, but our purpose is to try with every child.”

WESA also provides emergency food assistance and funding for heating and electric bills to families whose kids are affected by inadequate family income. The emergency funding doesn’t come from the government either. Bob has managed to run this operation for over three decades with only minimal public assistance. It has been his close ties to donors in the private sector that has enabled him to give so much.

When Bob founded WESA, the club was made up of just two kids: 11-year old Wayne Yearwood and his friend Trevor Williams. They were two kids out of many restless youth who found constructive outlets for their energy when Bob invited them to play basketball. Since then, the camp has grown exponentially; hundreds of west end kids have made use of the resources made available to them by WESA.

Not only does WESA provide an environment for kids to hone their athletic and academic skills, they have set up scholarship funds so that many of their gifted pupils can go on to higher education. Bob would also bring his most gifted athletes to basketball camps in the U.S. so that they could showcase their talents in front of university scouts.

Aubrey Merriman is one such case. Under Bob, he obtained a sports scholarship to the University of Hawaii, and went on to become a lecturer at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He has since used Bob’s program in his lectures at MIT as “a model of an effective community-based grassroots youth empowerment program.” Merriman admired how Bob and WESA were able to link U.S. universities and poor neighbourhoods.

Another grateful youth was Yearwood, who got noticed and received a scholarship to the University of West Virginia. He went on to play basketball for Team Canada and is now coaching basketball at Dawson College. Tommy Kane, another of Bobby’s pupils, went on to play in the NFL for the Seattle Seahawks.

Bob’s reach doesn’t stop at the WESA; he has donated his time and effects to many local organizations. The NDG YMCA: “sincerely thanks you for your contribution to our 8th annual March Madness Basketball Tournament.” Shadd Academy: “would like to thank both you and Tommy Kane for your active interest in our community. . . I was able to distribute turkeys, foodstuff and clothing to the indigent in both C

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