Extreme Friday Nights for South LA teens

Philip Wiley and Colleen are partnered up to run this new program. | Alexa Liacko

Philip Wiley and Colleen are partnered up to run this new program. | Alexa Liacko

Just off the Expo Line in South Central Los Angeles stands the Rancho Cienega Sports Center — a safe haven for young teens, and a place where one man gets to live his passion.

For Philip Wiley, “It’s something that means something to me — it means a lot.”

Wiley, the center’s recreation coordinator, has just launched “Extreme Friday Nights,” a program that gives local teens a place to hang out, play in the gym or do homework. So far, it’s been a big success.

“Look out there and see how many kids are running around! That’s a lot of kids!” Wiley said with a laugh. The program offers young people a place to come play basketball, get online in the computer lab or just come for a snack and some good company.

“If you wanna play basketball and work on your skills, nobody will bother you,” said 15-year-old Valance Sams. It’s safe, and if there’s any violence outside, you just come in here.”

“In this neighborhood, you’ve got a lot of negativity going on — a lot of gang-banging, drive-by shootings,” Wiley said. “If you know the kids are here, doing something constructive and positive, you know it’s gonna keep them out of trouble.”

“I feel safe here, more than when I go somewhere else,” said 13-year-old Jarrell Mickens.

“This gym has kept my from getting into so much trouble—I could’ve gotten into so much by now, but coming here and knowing it’s open every Friday night too…it’s just a good place to get active and have fun,” said Daniel Estes, 17.

Here for a reason

Wiley knows just how much places like the sports center can help young people get on track and stay there. He was orphaned at age 17. “I was lost,” he recalled. “I never knew anything but my parents, and I went to the streets.”

He said he pushed himself to go to community college to honor his parents’ wishes, but that he still “hung out with the guys at night.”

Just when he thought he might never escape being a “thug,” Wiley said the sports center’s director noticed him.

“The director here said, ‘Hey! I need a coach!’ And this lady stayed on me…I guess she saw the good in me,” Wiley said. Once he finally agreed to coach, he realized that “she kind of transformed me into the person that I was destined to be.”

With that encouragement, and eventually a job offer, Wiley discovered his passion—finding the good in others and bringing it out. “What the director did for me, I’m reciprocating for these kids,” he said.

The kids have noticed. “If you’re ever going through anything, he’ll help you with it so you don’t have to go through it alone,” Sams said.

“I treat ‘em just like my boys,” Wiley said. “At this center, we’re coaches, we’re mentors, we’re parents, surrogate parents, counselors. We do it all.”

He made sure that he did something for his parents too. Wiley continued his education and went on to get his master’s degree. He laughed when he asked himself, “Should I be making more money? I mean, probably! I could be making more, but it’s all about the gratification I get from working with these kids. These kids, they’re like my own.”

Many teens now consider the sports center a second home. “Someone took the time to do that for me,” said Wiley, “so I’m gonna do that for them.”

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