When selecting our “Group of the Year,” the News-Democrat & Leader considers a variety of criteria. The group must possess strong community ties, lend a helping hand to those in need, and make a difference in lives by what they do.
This year’s N-D&L “Group of the Year” meets all these requirements and then some and directs these towards the most important of all in our society - our children.
The Givin’ Back program is an inspiring, educational and caring initiative brought about by the loving and passionate local Jae Allison. His dream of providing a safe and nurturing place for kids and keeping them off the streets has become a reality for him with the help of many who buy into his vision of changing a child’s life one Saturday at a time.
“This is something I had to do, something that God himself has directed me to do,” said Allison, who is a graduate and former athlete of Russellville High School.
When Allison left Logan County soon after he grew up, he found himself on the streets of Atlanta, moving about with danger and fear. It wasn’t something he was proud of, but it is definitely something he draws from now. Before realizing his life was moving in the wrong direction, Allison had to see his son and his brother taken by a gun and he himself shot in the stomach and left for dead.
We all go through things in life good and bad that make us who we are and can adversely affect our future or the future of someone else. We grow from our experiences and Allison has done just that, he has transformed what he has been through and uses it to teach others.
“I wasn’t supposed to live. They told me if I did make it that I would most likely be paralyzed,” said Allison.
But Allison defeated the odds. He did live and he did walk again. He believes his healing is an act of God, one he is not taking for granted and one he intends to “give back” the rest of his days.
When Allison returned to Logan County, he had a conversation with his grandfather. He said that talk is really what lead him to start the Givin’ Back program.
“I didn’t want to see kids follow in my young footsteps,” said Allison. “I wanted those who didn’t really have a place to go, have a place to go. They needed a place, one where they could learn to appreciate themselves, respect themselves and others and stay off the streets.”
In 2005, Allison got together a group of his friends and pitched his idea. He wanted to have a time on the weekend set aside for the adult volunteers to meet and open a day up for kids to come and play basketball at the park. Although basketball is not for everyone, says Allison, it is much more than just a game, it’s a way to spend time with our youth and teach lessons that are so important in life.
“We teach these kids discipline and respect for themselves and for the people they come in contact with. If you don’t have discipline and respect in life, you have nothing,” Allison says. “Sports is a way to instill this behavior while allowing the kids to have fun. We let them know every time we meet that we care about them and what happens to them and where they go in life.”
When the program began there were 12 kids that showed up. Eight years later there are over 120 kids that show up every Saturday from 8 a.m. noon. The program is now being held at the Russellville High School gymnasium thanks to Superintendent Leon Smith, whom Allison cannot seem to say enough good things about.
“Mr. Smith has been there to help us out any way he can,” said Allison. “He goes out of his way and really cares for the kids.”
Since the program has grown in numbers, so has the time Allison and his volunteers have to give. At first the program was only offered during the summer months, however, since the kids are asking Allison for more, he is more than obliged to give it. The program is now offered every Saturday throughout the year and is open to anyone that wants to come, rather it be a student from any city or county school in Logan, or those who just want to help and volunteer.
“I’m always recruiting volunteers,” said Allison, adding that it takes a lot of people to help 125 kids.
Judge Sue Carol Browning is one of the program’s supporters. She has known Allison for years and said the program is a good one.
It is Allison’s hopes to someday have a building for his program, one in which he could have a gym, but also have classrooms for kids to do their homework or study music and dance. These are all activities that Allison says can better a child’s chance.
The Givin’ Back program did find itself a smaller version of Allison’s dream when they moved into a structure that once housed the American Red Cross in Russellville a year ago. Although there was no gym, there were rooms kids could come and use, however, that dream went up in smoke one night in October 2012, as the building burned down after being struck by lightening. For Allison and the kids it was hard to see that happen, but it was just a building and no one was hurt which is the most important thing, said Allison.
“We will be fine. We will find another place to call home someday,” said Allison, adding that it is not a building that makes the program successful, it’s the dedication of those working alongside the kids and the kids themselves.
Josh, Bigbee, one of Allison’s students says the program helps him out a lot..
“We do a lot of thinks I never knew about,” said Bigbee, 14. “I play basketball for my school and I have learned a lot through the years.”
Allison even starts therm off at a young age. Octavius Mckeage, 5, has learned many skills from spending time with Allison and other volunteers on Saturdays.
“I come to play basketball and to learn fundamentals,” said Mckeage. “I enjoy it.”
Allison said he believes they have a good program which teaches leadership skills the kids will take with them into their adult lives
The program is spreading by word of mouth, said Allison. Kids are coming in that have heard about it from other kids that have been.
“We want the kids and parents to know we are here to stay,” Allison said. “We want them to know it’s working and would like to get more parents to become involved as well. We can do this together.”
Allison and some volunteers took a group of Givin’ Back to a University of Kentucky Basketball game a little while back. He said there were 50 kids who went and he was so proud of them. “The respect level you see from these kids is amazing. When you have people come up after the ballgame is over commenting that the kids are so polite and well behaved. That makes me very proud,” Allison, adding that it makes it all worth it to see these kids and how they are learning.
“That is my paycheck,” said Allison.