When times get tough, students need A Place That Can Help

Saint Louis is on fire. Every day, it seems that the American dream becomes less and less attainable for the 300,000 who call St. Louis home. It’s hemorrhaging its once huge population from a wound in its underbelly. The jobs are leaving. The houses are less valuable. The schools are falling apart. The American dream is crumbling.

Numbers tell no lies. Numbers tell a story. Numbers give depth. Numbers tell that 41 percent of children in the City of Saint Louis live below the poverty level. Only 62 percent of children in the City Public School System graduated last year– and that’s the highest in more than a decade. The other 38 percent will find that almost half of them will live in poverty at some point in their life. Numbers are everlasting. The dream is not.

MR. MATHEWS

In the middle of the 1950s, an African-American league baseball coach, A.C. Anderson, was on his way out. He had just suffered a stroke, and he wasn’t getting any younger. He had done many great things with his life, including coaching an African American baseball league in a racially tense mid-century St. Louis. But, he wanted to do something good for the children of the St. Louis community.

He approached one of his players, a young man from Poplar Bluff by the name of Martin Mathews. He invited Mathews to his house to meet with him and discuss what service they would provide. Because of Anderson’s recent stroke, he had cleared the table out of his dining room and replaced it with a hospital bed. When Mathews arrived at Anderson’s house, this is where he found him waiting–with 30 inner city boys surrounding him. Anderson asked if Mathews would take half of these boys and teach them how to play baseball.

“I reluctantly told him, ‘yes,’” Mathews said. “I was hoping to drop them within a year. But I found that these kids needed so much assistance and were so excited that I decided to keep ‘em.”

The next year that Mathews spent with this group served as a prelude for the organization that he would create over the next five decades. He took them from a group of boys who couldn’t catch and throw a ball to a three championship team. To this day, Mathews still calls this, “one of the proudest moments” of his life.

“Those were 17 kids who couldn’t win a game,” Mathews said. “But you work with them, you inspire them, and they become the best. It planted the seed.”

There isn’t a surface in Mathews’s office that doesn’t have a framed newspaper article, proclamation or photo. Trophies sit sporadically throughout the space. Under the glass-top on his desk, photos create a collage of news makers–from former mayors to former Presidents–all of whom are posing with Mathews. A signed picture of Jackie Robinson, one of Mathews’ heroes, hangs next to a plaque from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But, Mathews’ prized possession, is a three-line note from former president, Ronald Reagan.

Mathews-Dickey didn’t start as an organization that tutored underprivileged children who were working to achieve the American dream. In fact, if you weren’t a boy, it didn’t service you at all. Mathews-Dickey started with that 30 boy baseball team. When word spread about their success, more and more young men wanted to play ball with Mr. Mathews, and his partner at the time, the late Dickey Valentine. By 1960, just five years after Anderson had approached Mathews, they had more than 1000 kids wanting to join their program. So they went to work and founded Mathews-Dickey Boys’ Club, as everyone who works there so lovingly says, “under a shade tree.”

“There were so many kids striving to get on the team, but we didn’t have the space to let them on,” Mathews said. “We wanted to show these men that if they stayed the course and worked hard, they would do great things with their lives.”

STAY THE COURSE, WORK HARD.

Barbara Washington isn’t the everyday non-profit staffer. She sings gospel; she has an album. She serves nearly 100 roles, from office greeter to breakfast chef to service organizer. Her official title, Vice President, PR & Special Events, makes her the go-to person for pretty much everything at Mathews-Dickey Boys’ and Girls’ Club.

That’s how things work at Mathews-Dickey. They’re a family. A large family–they have more than 5000 volunteers–but a family nonetheless. They may service more than 40,000 kids in the St. Louis region every year, and have serviced millions in their 50 year history, but to Barbara and Mathews, there is nobody too small for their attention.

“We always work with the child, for the child,” Washington said. “I don’t want to see anyone live without having.”

Washington hasn’t always had things herself. She grew up in an impoverished family in one of the poorest regions of Mississippi. It was by fate that she met an officer in the military, a marriage that didn’t last too long, only long enough to give her two children. But, it took her out of her poverty stricken life. It eventually took her to Mathews-Dickey. It took her to her American dream.

She had been volunteering with the Boys’ club when she wasn’t serving as the spokesperson for General American Insurance Company. Mathews started to take note of her work at the club: how she would work tirelessly, sometimes until midnight. Mathews watched her. He saw her on Channel 4 news every once in a while. His Vice President of Public Relations was leaving. He saw an opportunity.

He asked.

She said no.

“I didn’t want to get paid for this,” Washington said. “I didn’t know I could get paid for this.”

After a bit of persuasion, Mathews had convinced Barbara to leave General American and work for him full time. Shortly after joining the staff, Washington worked to integrate more programs into the tutoring service. Eventually, she became the catalyst for the addition of girls athletic and tutoring programs. These now account for more than half of the students at Mathews-Dickey.

“She has blossomed into one of the finest supporters that you can find in the country,” Mathews said. “My motto in life is, ‘Make the best better.’ She fits that motto. Mathews-Dickey was good, but she made it better.”

A Presidential Proclamation and a plan.

North St. Louis gets a bad rap. It stands as one of the poorest areas in the region. It’s crime rate is higher than almost any other part of the city–and the country for that matter. It’s local high school, Beaumont, graduates a meager one out of two students every year. It’s a problem that Mathews-Dickey has been working to curb since it was founded. To Mathews’s every kid is a product of their home life, school and community.

“We take the kid and talk through their issues. We work through their problems,” Mathews said. “The kid is a victim of his environment. Everybody has self-worth. There is good in every kid.”

They have many programs, all designed to get kids off the street, in the schools, then into college.  Their Tri-A Program works with troubled students, students who had disciplinary issues and weren’t succeeding in school–weren’t allowed to go to school. After just five years of work with 100 kids, the program had a 99

percent return rate. It was so successful that the public school system adopted it and uses it to this day. They started an internship program that spread across the nation. It provided 50 kids with internship opportunities across the city. It eventually became so large that the city took it over. In other words, if the kids can’t get themselves to their American dream, Mathews-Dickey has the means to aid them in the process.

“If kids don’t have the resources they need to pick themselves up by their boot strings,” Washington said. “They won’t succeed.”

In 1982, this behavior caught the attention of then president, Ronald Reagan. That year, on a trip to St. Louis, he stopped by Mathews-Dickey to present Mathews and Valentine with a proclamation. And to declare Mathews-Dickey a Model for the Country.

“It inspired us to keep doing good,” Mathews said. “That inspired me more than anything in my life to have the President of the United States say that.”

The philosophies of Mathews-Dickey are living on. Just across the street from the club, the former Education Director for Mathews-Dickey, Don Danforth, founded City Academy. For more than a decade, City Academy has provided tuition to its elementary students, half of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch. Now, it’s one of the most successful private elementary schools in the country.

“There is a need for more opportunities all over the community,” Danforth said. “These are smart kids who needed a push and someone to take an interest.”

Mathews is working to ensure that his organization lives to provide access to the American dream long after he is gone. After being hospitalized earlier this year for several weeks, Mathews is spending his time on what he feels will be his last great contribution to the community: a program working to keep kids in school and out of jail.

“There is good in every kid,” Mathews said. “They just need someone to bring that out of them. I want to instill that dream in them.”

As Mathews looks upon what he has created, all the good works he has done over the course of the organization’s 50 years, it all comes back to baseball. He recalls standing in the middle of Forrest Park with his young team. They had won their third state championship, despite the battles they had working against them. This moment planted the seed for him. He saw boys who had accomplished their dream because he had put the effort forth for them. They lived their dream; he’s lived his.

“Those boys were champs and they realized, ‘I’ve done this. I can do other things,” Mathews said. “I’ve accomplished goals–impossible goals–in life. The American dream: if you work hard, you can reach the American dream. I have lived the American dream.”