Ernest Brown, a Philly native and reformed hustler, recently kicked off the annual Basketball Skills camp through his Building Up The Youth organization.
Ernest Brown cruised down Sicklerville Road toward Lehigh Manor Estates.
In the backseat, kids from across the neighborhood spun a basketball on their fingertips, discussing the latest instruments they were picking up at local Winslow Township schools.
Brown, a native of the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia, weaved his red Charger through the housing developments where he was greeted by energetic young boys. After a quick lesson on dribbling, Brown stepped inside one of their homes, helping an elementary-aged student with that evening’s math homework.
Brown’s afternoon of nurturing children was not out of the ordinary — but rather something he’s been performing on a daily basis through his Sicklerville-based Building Up The Youth development organization.
The mentorship, founded in 2016, aims to provide a series of programs that help local youth become successful and productive citizens who contribute to the community. In mid-March, the organization kicked off its annual Basketball Skills camp, which is held every Saturday at New Brooklyn Park from 8 a.m. to noon and runs from March to December.
“All these kids really want is somebody they can talk to, somebody who cares for them, somebody who shows them love,” he said.
On average, the camp, which is free of charge, can see anywhere between 30 to 60 kids a week where Brown not only teaches sports skills but impedes the 4 to 16 year olds from life on the streets. Some days, the group sees up to 80 kids.
When Brown was growing up around 30th and Norris streets in Philadelphia, the now-Sicklerville resident says he did not have such guidance.
“I was underserved to where I didn’t have much when I was young, so I started hustling, selling drugs at the age of 13,” he said. “So, I got really heavy into the street life … that’s all I knew. I knew nothing else. I never gave myself a chance. I never had a chance.”
At 17, Brown was arrested for drug-related offenses. Despite seven years in jail and a couple years in a halfway house, Brown still found himself drawn toward crime in the city.
Amid years of this lifestyle, Brown started rollerblading with friends in Sicklerville where he’d eventually meet his wife and have a son.
Around 2005, when he relocated to South Jersey and started his own family, Brown had an epiphany, deciding to shift his innate leadership skills toward another focus.
“Now that I look at it, it must have been God’s way to bring me all the way up here to Sicklerville,” he said. “When I had my son, it just made me start thinking — my wife and my son is the reason I got out of that.”
While helping coach his son’s basketball league a couple years ago, Brown found himself inspired when young players flocked to him for lessons. Along with encouragement from fellow church goers, he started posting fliers around Sicklerville promoting the start of his weekly basketball camp.
Through word of mouth, a handful of kids moseying over to play basketball at New Brooklyn on Saturday mornings eventually evolved into dozens of children seeking compassion from Brown, as his mentorship was no longer confined to the parameters of the park.
“(Ernest) helps us train in basketball and anything else we wanna achieve in life. He makes sure we’re pushing ourselves to the limit,” said 14-year-old Tanaysha Rowe, one of Brown’s mentees. “I come every week because he inspires me to do things I never thought I would do.”
“The stuff I’ve been doing in the past — I’ve changed,” added 15-year-old Danaysha Downs. “I’m getting there.”
Brown says, on a daily basis, he interacts with about 45 kids from around Sicklerville, including both Gloucester and Winslow townships, through tutoring sessions and life-training lessons. Aside from reviewing report cards and staying in touch with teachers, Brown will often take a group of kids to local stores, eateries and even barber shops. From pizza to haircuts, Brown says everything he provides for the children comes directly out of his own pocket.
After leaving Leigh Manor, Brown and the kids cramped back in his car, making their way to the other end of Sicklerville Road toward Perfection Styles Barbers — a staple stop on Brown’s mentoring mission.
“I first met Ern — he came into the barber shop, and he came in with a whole bunch of kids,” said Jordan Davis, a barber at the shop. “The way he was talking to the kids was more so not in a father-like figure but in a light that was almost — like he was empowering them — all motivational quotes.”
The barbers say once every three weeks, Ernest comes into the shop with a group of bustling young people, enlivening the business with good energy.
“It’s like an event. It’s a moment that you get to see a bunch of kids, some of them bad some of them not, all have respect and manners … honestly it brings a little sunshine to the day,” said Michael Campbell, another barber. “You can’t have a bad day when he comes around with these kids.”
In Brown’s eyes, instilling confidence in children, whether through a fresh hairdo or fitness skills, is a colossal component toward their success — something he feels profoundly lacked in his own life.
“To me, kids will understand more from somebody who’s been through it,” he said.
As far as the future, Brown’s vision encompasses opening an after-school building with an indoor gym and computers where mentees can relax, socialize, workout and do homework for no costs.
“When they can’t work on their talent, when they can’t work on their craft, what are they gonna do? They’re gonna run to the street,” he said.
While the indoor venue will relieve playing in freezing or scorching temperatures, it will also provide a place of sanctuary.
“Ern has really taken it upon himself to stop talking about it, but to be about it,” said Larry Barnes, another barber. “He applies himself to them, talks to them, takes the time to listen to them, give them direction and things of that nature. I think he’s doing an outstanding job.”
If you’d like to donate to Building Up the Youth, contact Brown at (856) 449–5169 or email@example.com. To learn more about the program, visit www.facebook.com/Building-Up-The-Youth.