Growing up in the under-served neighborhood of Binghampton can be difficult for children who struggle with educational setbacks, food insecurities, and high crime rates.
High crime rates are particularly sobering. In 2014, Tillman Police Station, which serves all of Binghampton and the surrounding area, reported 5,607 part one crimes, which are made up of seven offenses: homicide, burglary, robbery, vehicle theft, aggravated assault, rape, and larceny.
Over the past three years, Memphis Gridiron Ministries has worked to combat these everyday struggles and give back to this community, thanks to a group of men, who were actively involved in the Buzzards Youth Football Program in East Memphis and saw an opportunity to mentor at-risk youth through tackle football.
Andy McArtor, a B-767 captain and instructor pilot for FedEx, serves as the ministry’s vice chairman and president of the board of directors. McArtor explained that the group wanted to use tackle football as a way to mentor at-risk youth and help them build character.
“Our program is trying to make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth boys by way of mentoring and sharing the Gospel,” McArtor said. “This is done through the unique environment of tackle football. Tackle football at the youth level offers a unique opportunity to positively affect the youth of this city and especially those that are most at risk. We believe that when presented right, tackle football provides an environment to mold and shape the character of young men and prepare them to be successful in life.”
Named the Binghampton Bulldogs, the first youth tackle football program in the community consists of 60 boys between the ages of 8 and 11. Currently, the program houses three teams—the Spikes (3-4 graders), the Dawgs (4-5 graders) and the Bulls (5-6 graders).
But football is merely an outlet of teaching for this organization. More specifically, the ministry uses football as way to promote discipline, academic success, work ethic, service over self and a life centered around Christ.
McArtor said the group’s goal isn’t about wins or losses, but rather to serve the community and mentor children. “Our goal is to defeat the “win-at-all-cost mentality” by redefining a winner, instructing our athletes how to honor the game, and developing a concept of serving others over self,” he said.
One of the biggest influences the organization has had on the Binghampton community is promoting academic success to the neighborhood’s youth with an emphasis on Christian values and after-school programs.
According to the 2010 American Community Survey, 32 percent of the Binghampton residents age 18 and older lack a high school diploma, while only 8 percent have a bachelors degree or higher.
Greg Wilkinson, Memphis Gridiron Ministries’ cofounder and volunteer coordinator, said multiple activities outside of football, including an after-school tutoring program that operated throughout each season. “MGM is teaching kids life lessons through the game of football,” Wilkinson said. “Teaching them teamanship and how to be about something greater than themselves. We also have a tutoring program during the season after school on the days that we practice.”
The founders of the organization chose Binghampton, while supporting other ministries throughout the community. After three successful years, the ministries’ board treasurer Bert Robinson said the organization has seen support from the community grow rapidly. “We can see that most of the families involved are buying into what we want to accomplish, and they support us in the core values that we are trying to emphasize: discipline, teamwork and perseverance among others,” Robinson said.
Kim Cook, a resident of the Binghampton community and mother to a program participant, said the organization has done so much for her family and her community. She said her son Caleb, 10, has grown on and off the field because of MGM’s coaching and mentoring.
“They challenge him to grow both academically and athletically,” Cook said. “Also they are just always promoting character in our kids. I feel like as a program they have done so much to expand Caleb’s experiences, to help him to grow with confidence especially.”
Cook said that the gridiron ministry hasn’t only supported the kids, but also the community and the parents, as well. She explained that when parents talked to coaches about some of their children’s disciplinary issues, the coaches quickly called a meeting between the players, their parents and the organization’s staff to help address those issues. “They basically came around them and said, ‘your parents and coaches are on the same team and we are all trying to do the same thing, to develop character in you, to teach you about Jesus, and to teach you the game of football and have fun together.’”
Cook said the program also has united the area’s residents.
“I feel like there has been a greater sense of community with the parents who’s kids play sports together and people just showing up at the field from the neighborhood to watch our teams play,” Cook said. “It’s just developed a sweeter sense of community.”
Cook said the organization is making a difference in her community and the city of Memphis as a whole. “Anytime when you have people of God investing intentionally in a community, I think that results in fruitfulness,” Cook said. “I think it makes a community different.”
Brian Schneider, a three-year volunteer with Memphis Gridiron Ministries, said he has loved his experience in volunteering with the organization. He explained that these children are in a crucial stage in their lives where they are easily influenced and Memphis Gridiron Ministries is working in the Binghampton community to positively influence these boys’ lives.
“This program has the ability and seeks to change the trajectory of these boy’s lives, who are growing up and living in one of the hardest communities in the city of Memphis, if not the nation,” Schneider said. “They are surrounded by crime, poverty, a lack of some higher degrees and professional advancement within the community, there are job issues and there are gangs. There are all kinds of tough, hard scrap of life in the neighborhood.”
Schneider said every Saturday the field is packed with residents from the neighborhood buying into the program and cheering on players. “You got the boys, and you’ve got their mothers, fathers, and in some instances aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins all out there, and they are seeing this light shine,” Schneider said.