Former NBA player’s summer outreach celebrates 30th year

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A former participant turned instructor, Anthony Tyrone “A.T.” Barnes continues to “invest” in the Eddie Lee Wilkins Youth Association’s Summer Program. Currently celebrating its 30th anniversary, the seasonal outreach provides free educational and athletic camps for Bartow youth ages 6 to 17.

“The impact that the program had on me as a child was powerful and built a strong work ethic that I carried to high school and beyond,” said Barnes, who participated in the program’s summer league from 2000 to 2005. “… As a child of the program, I remember the sold out, standing-room only gyms for the basketball games. We were representing ELW and the expectation to win was high as well as to compete.

“As an instructor, I just love to see the smiles and the joy of just giving a high-five to the kids. They love to talk — schools out — and I just make sure I keep them encouraged, moving and enjoying the moment.”

For Barnes, the ELW Youth Association’s Summer Program has turned into a family affair. As the Cartersville resident serves as an instructor for the second year, his wife, Darya, is facilitating its educational offerings and two of his four children are taking part as a volunteer and participant.

“My passion and desire is to build our youth for the next generation through sports and fitness,” said Barnes, who graduated from Cartersville High School in 2005, prior to playing football and obtaining a business management degree at Georgia Tech. “I have been blessed to play and earn an education from Georgia Tech, then to be an apprentice from the sports performance guru — Dr. Clayton Gibson/Vitality Health Care Inc. — and to teach/coach at Cartersville High School alongside some spectacular coaches.

“I want to make sure all the knowledge, love, passion and experience that I have stays in the community. I love waking up to invest my time and knowledge to the youth of Bartow County.”

Leading the Track and Fitness Camp from June 5 to 7 at the J.H. Morgan Gym on Aubrey Street in Cartersville, he embraced the opportunity to be part of the ELW Youth Association Summer Program’s 30th year.

“The ELW Youth Association and summer programs are special to me because they are examples of what a community of support could do for so many under-privileged or at-risk youth,” he said. “The program allows the local youth to take part in many programs and field trips that would normally cost many struggling families a lot of money during the critical hot summer months out of school.

“It is remarkable how ELW comes back each summer, this year being the 30th year, to invest in the youth. I did not have to pay years ago and the program enhanced me physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. This program works, and the instructors and junior volunteers that sacrifice their time really make a difference in the [youth’s] lives.”

Established by Cartersville native and former NBA player Eddie Lee Wilkins, the summer offering has grown exponentially over the past three decades. Featuring 150 youngsters in the ELW Summer Youth Basketball Program and League in 1990, his outreach incorporated as a nonprofit in 1993, and changed its name to the ELW Youth Association Inc. to reflect its increased programs in June 1998.

“I wanted to share my success with the community, which gave so much support in my long climb to the NBA — New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers,” said Wilkins, the organization’s executive director. “Coach Matthew Hill was my mentor and he taught me the importance of giving back to the community.

“It was important to offer a free program for the youth in the community because I didn’t want parents to have any financial hardships. I wanted to create a safe haven where the youth could have fun and learn. I wanted to be able to use sports as a tool, so I could capture their attention and then educate them regarding the importance of education, conflict resolution and setting goals.”

Sponsored by the city of Cartersville, the ELW Youth Association’s Summer Program features seven experiences through June 27. While Yoga … Anyone? and Track and Fitness have already concluded, the remaining offerings include Daily Trivia & Team Building, June 3 to 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at J.H. Morgan Gym; Basketball, June 10 to 13 and 17 and 18 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at J.H. Morgan Gym and Aubrey Street Gym; Read, Write, Now, June 10 to 13 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at J.H. Morgan Gym; S.T.E.M (Science), June 19 to 21 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at J.H. Morgan Gym; and Everyday Math, June 24 to 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at J.H. Morgan Gym.

Noting the nonprofit’s Summer Program has served more than 6,000 youth since its inception, Wilkins’ wife, Dawn, said it is “incredible to see” how the ELW Youth Association “has evolved and [touches] the lives of many youth in the community. Eddie and I have watched three generations of families come to his program. It so fulfilling and rewarding when the former participants come back after they have graduated from high school and/or college and volunteer and/or speak to the youth regarding their journey to success.

“We are so excited because Kendricke Brown is coming to camp on June 11. Kendricke Brown, known as K-Major, is a successful producer, songwriter and artist and a Cartersville native. He has written songs for Usher, Future and Jacquees to name a few. He attended the ELW summer camp and played in the Summer Basketball League.”

Like his wife, who serves as the organization’s program director, Wilkins underscores the importance of past participants returning to talk with today’s campers.

“It is a rewarding when you have former participants, such as Ronnie Brown, former NFL player; Andre Fluellen, former NFL player; Vic Beasley, current NFL; Rudy Winters, European basketball player; Ashton Hagans, basketball player, University of Kentucky; Jaylon Pugh, basketball player, Furman University; and Val Lindley, former basketball player, College of Charleston, who are successful in sports and continue … giving to the community.

“Over 50 NBA players have visited my basketball camp. Some of the favorites were Josh Smith, A.J. Johnson, Doc Rivers, Tree Rollins, Charles Oakley, Dale Davis, Dale Ellis and John Starks. The most memorable was when Patrick Ewing, former NBA player visited camp in 1999.”

In addition to the city of Cartersville, the Wilkins couple extends thanks to David Archer Jr., Dexter Jones, Kenn Baker, Etowah Area Consolidated Housing Authority, Cartersville City Schools, Walmart, Publix Super Markets Charities, Southern Co., Shaw Industries and McDonald’s for their ongoing support.

“Eddie Lee has given his time and talent to help the youth of our community for 30 years,” Cartersville Mayor Matt Santini said. “His organization has positively impacted and inspired every child who has participated in the program. Many of the children that are served through this program would be sitting at home and being unproductive over the summer.

“…I applaud Eddie Lee on his continued efforts to help children in our community. He does a lot of good, not just during this camp, but throughout the year that many people don’t know about. His commitment to put this camp program together for 30 years is admirable, and I am certain that this camp will be as fantastic as the others have been.”

Echoing Santini’s comments, Barnes also expressed his appreciation for the ELW Youth Association’s leaders.

“I want to thank Eddie Lee and Dawn Wilkins for being exceptional role models and pillars in our community for the youth and for many African-American couples,” said Barnes, CEO of Prodigy Transition Service. “The power couple has invested their life, time and connections to enrich the Bartow County community even well after his NBA career ended. It’s a pleasure and a honor to serve the community through ELW.

“I pray that Prodigy Transition Service will be around for 30 years and leave a legacy, such as the ELW Youth Summer Program as well. ... I’m living proof that this program works, is necessary and fostered the drive I have in me as a first-generation college graduate, business owner, husband and father.”

For more information about the ELW Youth Association, call 404-725-3376, or visit www.elwyouth.org or its Facebook page.