PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – The pandemic shut down many in-person activities involving volunteers. But, with the success of vaccines and COVID-19 case numbers down, compared to this time last year, volunteers are getting back out there. Members of a local mentoring program are gearing up to start playing chess, again, with incarcerated teens.
“Norfolk Police have charged three teenagers for a shooting on Mariner’s Way…” read the first line of a news story WAVY recently aired.
“When kids used to get in trouble we used to ask ‘Why would they do that?’ Number one answer is ‘I don’t know,’ said Tyrell Scott, the media marketing coordinator with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeastern Virginia. “They didn’t think about the consequences.”
Scott and four other men, concerned about juveniles committing crimes, shared ideas in a recent zoom session.
The challenge for the adults: How to get the teens to think before they make their next move.
One answer: playing the game of chess.
“We started the program up. They loved it,” said John Bell, Superintendent of the Norfolk Juvenile Detention
In 2017, Bell and NJDC welcomed in some adult and college-aged volunteers in a group called Chess NutZ Knights Network. The volunteers began playing chess with incarcerated teenagers, one day a week, every week.
Chess NutZ volunteers first came together about a year earlier, at Newport News Juvenile Detention with the same game plan, to find adults who like to play chess, then, play the games with incarcerated teens and during the matches talk about the parallels between making a move on the chess board, and in life.
But, the first order of business is always to play the game.
“If you want to see one of those young people’s face light up? When they beat you! Then, they get real excited,” said Homer Cook, who volunteers with the Norfolk branch of Chess NutZ at NJDC. Cook also volunteers with the Lions Club.
Norfolk JDC superintendent John Bell said before the pandemic forced an end to all outside volunteer programs, like Chess NutZ, the word spread among the teen inmates who became increasingly motivated to try and be included in those selected to play with the volunteers.
“The ‘NutZ “was also an incentive for them (teens) to have positive behavior, because, if they had any
behavioral issues, they weren’t able to play chess,” explained Bell.
The adult players say it may take a few meetings to break the ice with a teen. But, once you do, the adults try to share a “nugget of knowledge” about how, in the game of chess, and in real life, your choices have consequences. “We tie chess into everyday life lessons, in our programs such as ‘Money Matters,’ ‘Career Launch,’ ‘Passport to Manhood’ and ‘Smart Girls,'” said EJ Ferguson of the Rosemont Boys and Girls Club in Virginia Beach.
Sometimes, the teens surprise the adults in the middle of a conversation.
Glenn Sorentino, who is with a prison ministry group called “Royal Rangers”, said he has been in the middle of a lesson, when a teenager taught him something. “Yes. It’s quite gratifying to be able to teach the boys certain behaviors and certain attitudes, and then, have them pass it on.”
Superintendent Bell said he’s hoping to have the Chess NutZ volunteers back this fall. And, yes, the NJDC staff still have their eyes on the pandemic. Bell said COVID-19 safety protocols such as masking, social distancing, and temperature checks have been working to keep the teens and staff healthy. And, when the matches resume, the NJDC staff plan to try different plans possibly involving spacing and glass barriers between players.
Bell hopes to resume volunteer visits this fall, possibly as soon as September. That will give volunteers time to get required police background checks.
Bell and all the Chess NutZ volunteers hope the effort has a long lasting impact on the juvenile offenders.
“We gotta do something to change what’s happening there in the streets. And, while we’ve got them here, we have an opportunity to change that behavior. and their thought process.”
A start… getting the teens to remember the Chess NutZ Knights Network motto: “Think B4U Move. ALWAYS PROTECT THE KING.”
Teens who are out and about enjoying what’s left of their summer vacation can test their chess skills this Tuesday at the Rosemont Boys and Girls Club, located at 1505 Competitor Court in Virginia Beach. They’re hosting a chess tournament for children. To find out more, give them a call at 757-368-4445.
Meanwhile, to volunteer to play chess with incarcerated teens starting this fall, In Norfolk and Newport News, text the Chess Nutz Knights Network at: 757-434-3773.