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Rec Salvage

On the worst day of her life, Jackie Joyner had come home to bury her mother.

She was a UCLA freshman, lonely and homesick and wondering if she was a good enough athlete to compete.

Her mother, Mary, only 38 years old and always Jackie’s biggest supporter, in whose heart Jackie had found confidence and poise, the values of a good Christian, the unswerving love she craved, the beautiful woman she wanted to become, had fallen ill with meningitis, so quickly that by the time Jackie got home, Mary was deep in a coma and dying.

And now, before she was to bury her mother, Jackie ran to a place that had helped her become the strong, athletic woman Mary had urged her to be. The building had seemed the biggest, most beautiful thing Jackie had ever seen--something out of “The Jetsons” cartoon.

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It was a round ball, made to look as if it had landed from outer space and was only two blocks from the Joyner home. It was the Mary Brown Rec Center and it was the best thing that ever happened to East St. Louis. At least that’s what Jackie Joyner had thought.

It was where Jackie would go after school every day to run and jump and play basketball. She learned to swim there.

The rec center was better than any baby-sitter. Her mother and father let Jackie go there on her own.

The neighborhood was a hard place. The Joyners lived next to a tavern. Men played dice outside the house. They drank and had fights, but they always were sweet to Jackie and she would wave and say hi as she ran to the rec center.

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So on this day, when Jackie’s heart was breaking and she needed to feel safe again, on the day her mother would be buried, Jackie went to the Mary Brown Rec Center.

“And when I got there,” the woman now known as Jackie Joyner-Kersee says nearly 20 years later, “the front doors were chained and locked. Windows were broken. Weeds were growing.

“I just stood there and cried. I thought, ‘Where do the kids go?’

“And I thought that one day I would rebuild the Mary Brown Center. That idea never, ever left me.”

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Many famous and wealthy athletes say they want to give back, do good, help others.

Some of them do. Some of them, out of their many millions of dollars earned in sports, write checks. They donate sports equipment to a school or clothing to a youth group. They give autographed basketballs for charity auctions. They make occasional guest appearances in the old neighborhood.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, 39, is a famous athlete. She is wealthier than many people but she doesn’t have the bucks to write big, big checks. With her six Olympic medals--three gold, one silver, two bronze--even if she might be the greatest female track and field athlete in history, Joyner-Kersee didn’t get filthy rich.

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What she did earn was her reputation as a graceful, elegant, ethical champion with the will to use her reputation to raise money. And she had the memory of that padlocked recreation center in the middle of a city full of padlocked buildings and empty lots full of rot and weeds.

Not much good has happened to East St. Louis in the last 20 years. The population, once as high as 81,000, is down to about 31,000.

What most of us know about East St. Louis is what we saw in the first Chevy Chase “Vacation” movie. Remember? When the Griswolds and their Family Truckster were lost in East St. Louis and the citizens stripped the car of hubcaps and anything else removable?

Or we know how the murder rate in East St. Louis was often tops in the nation. As was the jobless rate.

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“People would act surprised when I would say I was from East St. Louis,” Joyner-Kersee says. “They’d ask me if I was embarrassed.”

Joyner-Kersee is sitting in an office at the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center. The $6-million, 42,000-square-foot building opened March 1, 2000. Jackie had been the most intrepid fund raiser, helping find $12million for the project. She wants to raise at least twice that much more.

Her plan is for the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Center to never be padlocked, always to be open for the children of East St. Louis.

The center has a science classroom. There are an arts-and-crafts room, a dance room and a music room; a fitness center and a gym. There are classrooms and a book room. There is a computer room.

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The children begin arriving at 3 p.m. They come in giggling. They come in sizes big and small, tiny tots with backpacks almost bigger than they are and teenagers who whisper the secrets of the day.

When the children come through the front door, they see a board with a printed schedule.

3-4:30 Power Hour

5-6 Foosball Tournament

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Open Gym

Open Gym for Teens

That “power hour” has nothing to do with sports or lifting weights. It is about studying, doing homework, writing papers, figuring out calculus problems, diagraming sentences.

On hand are adults who answer questions, bend over and help little hands learn cursive writing, help young minds learn geography.

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And more often than not, Jackie is around. Her husband, Bobby Kersee, is almost always at the center. He is the executive director. He is also a father figure to some kids, a tap-dance partner for others. Bobby dries tears and gives gentle lectures about living up to responsibility.

He was in tap-dance class one day when 8-year-old Aishwanae Session fell hard to the floor. It appeared that her leg had broken.

Bobby ran to help Aishwanae--Nae-Nae, everybody calls her--and discovered that she had been participating in the class with a prosthetic leg. The foot of the leg had twisted and Aishwanae had fallen. The nurse on the premises fixed the foot.

Bobby wanted to fix more.

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“Bobby saw that the leg wasn’t the greatest quality,” said Tondra Mosley, who works at the center.

“Bobby didn’t tell anyone but he started to make phone calls to doctors he knows. Pretty soon Bobby had it set up so that Nae-Nae is going to get a new leg, the best one possible. Bobby is paying for that leg himself.

“You hear about all these athletes who maybe write a check and they make hundreds of millions of dollars.

“With Bobby and Jackie it’s so different. They are here. They live here and all they want to do is make this place work and make this city better. Jackie didn’t leave her hometown. She is really trying to make it better.”

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Mosley’s daughters, Ericha Vickers, 8, and Moneque Cole, 6, come to the center every day.

“None of us wants to go home at night,” Mosley says. “But when we do, the girls have their homework done and they’ve had dinner.”

The center has a kitchen and a cook.

“So many of these kids, they come to us hungry,” Lecia Rives says. “They get dinner here and if we didn’t feed them, they wouldn’t get dinner.”

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Rives is the center’s education director. She grew up in East St. Louis and when she was a high school track athlete, Joyner-Kersee would come and give pep talks to the team, maybe practice with the athletes. “Jackie was a real person who wanted to be a role model,” Rives says. “I would write her letters sometimes and she’d always write back. When I was in high school, Jackie took a bunch of us to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York. We were her guests. It was the first time I’d ever been out of East St. Louis. That’s the kind of thing that you never forget, that someone would give you that experience.”

Rives went to Tennessee State and Howard and earned a law degree. She was working in Chicago when her mother died. Rives had just missed on her first attempt to pass the Illinois bar exam when she went to East St. Louis for her mother’s funeral. It was, Rives remembers, the worst time of her life.

“On the day of my mom’s funeral, I read the paper and there was an ad for this job, education director,” she says. “If I hadn’t been home that day, I wouldn’t have seen the ad.”

Rives applied for, and got, the job. It wasn’t the easiest of decisions.

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“I’m young and single,” Rives says, laughing. “I was living the good life in Chicago. Shopping, clubs, a great city, a great place to be, you know? Why did I want to come back to East St. Louis?

“When I was in school and people would ask where I was from and I’d tell them, they’d all be surprised. ‘You really lived there? You aren’t going back, are you?’ And I’d always tell them, no, I wasn’t going back.

“But the center changed the equation. It’s made things different.”

When she was working in Chicago, in the district attorney’s office, Rives was in court every day, seeing people up on drug charges, assault charges, murder charges. She saw nothing but people whose lives were in ruins and most of them had come from the same circumstances so many kids in East St. Louis face.

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The population of East St. Louis is 98% African American, Rives says.

In 1965, it had been named an All-American city. It had thriving businesses and an integrated community that was 70% white and 30% African American.

But then the businesses, the important ones, the factories and manufacturing plants and stockyards, began to leave. So did the workers, mostly the young, ambitious people.

Left behind are empty buildings with crumbling chimneys, a school system that had to be put under the protection of the state of Illinois, a city that had to padlock its recreation center. A city whose sign reads, “Welcome to East St. Louis, City of Champions.”

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Joyner-Kersee is one of those champions.

Mosley says that Jackie and Bobby are “touchable.” By that she means that Joyner-Kersee and Kersee are just regular people to the kids. They are available for hugs, for kisses. They offer big arms to put around little shoulders.

“I’m still learning about everything,” Joyner-Kersee says. “This place can’t only be about sports. We want to teach everything. We have a job-training program for teenagers. We have a nurse here every day. She’s affiliated with the local hospital so the kids get health screenings and physicals. For a lot of the kids, it’s the first physical they’ve ever had.”

Joyner-Kersee says your heart could break every day if you’d let it. The center is supposed to close at 7 or 8 each night but many times kids are still waiting for rides home at 10. So a staff member will drive them home. If no one is there, a child will be taken to an aunt or cousin or grandmother’s house. Sometimes it takes four or five stops before the child can be safely left.

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“You want to take the kids home with you,” Rives says. “But we can’t do that. We don’t want to become just a baby-sitting service, where people think they can dump their kids. That’s not the point here. We have to be so much more.”

The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Boys and Girls Club is serving nearly 2,500 kids now. Under construction are new football, baseball and soccer fields. There will be a track, and maybe a swimming pool. Joyner-Kersee remembers a childhood friend who drowned when she was on a boat trip because there had been no place in East St. Louis for kids to learn how to swim.

But the sports facilities are coming second. Because Joyner-Kersee wanted to start with more important things.

Shawn Hill, 13, is being raised by his grandparents. His father isn’t around. His mother isn’t reliable. Rives says Hill started coming to the center the day it opened. What the staff noticed was that he was a talker. He loved to give speeches and experiment with words.

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At the center, Hill was encouraged to keep speaking. At the Fall Festival, a seasonal celebration of the achievements of these children, Hill stood up and read Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“He brought tears to our eyes,” Rives says.

Hill’s grandparents, Carolyn and George Gray, say that Shawn sleeps with his member T-shirt under his pillow.

“He tells me, ‘Granny, I want to be ready,”’ Carolyn Gray says.

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That’s the point.

Joyner-Kersee wants the kids of East St. Louis to be ready.

“There are good people here, lots of them,” Joyner-Kersee says. “There were good people when I grew up and there still are. Too many people wanted to give up on East St. Louis. I want to help East St. Louis keep up.”

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Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.


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