Ulysses Cofield’s mother worked three jobs when he was a kid. His father wasn’t around much, so Cofield had a lot of time on his hands.
Although he was a good basketball player, Cofield found that getting to practice wasn’t easy.
“My mother didn’t want me walking to practice; it wasn’t safe. So I was stuck,” Cofield says. “Being stuck led to, ‘Well, I can’t be involved in sports, so let me be involved in other things that are of the streets.’”
That’s how Cofield ended up using, and then selling, drugs.
He isn’t proud of it. But Cofield knows now that he got sucked into street-hustling for many reasons: The older boys who encouraged him made him feel loved and cared for. He was bored. He needed money. And peers—especially girls—began to pay him much sought-after attention.
“Either you’re going to get that attention for excelling on the sports field or you’re going to get that attention from being on the streets. Those are the only two options that our young people think they have,” he says. “When I was out there, I felt like I was loved by everybody in the city. I realize now that I was being used.”
Cofield, who turned away from drug-dealing in his early 20s, doesn’t want any other young people to feel that their options are as limited as he once did. So he has partnered with Forth Worthington Elementary School and the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum to engage youth in afterschool activities that will keep them off the streets.
Cofield will use his fellowship to enhance his program, Creating Opportunities for East Baltimore’s Youth to Take Root Through Community Engagement (CORE).
Cofield—now called “Coach U” by anyone who knows him—refers to CORE as an afterschool program, but it is much more than that. He uses sports and the draw of the recreation center attached to Fort Worthington Elementary School to attract the scores of children who come through his doors, but once they come in he is more counselor than coach.
“I ask if they are hungry and, if they are, I get them something to eat,” Cofield says. “Some of them need to get their GEDs. Some of them are outstanding athletes and need someone to work with them. Somebody might say, ‘Hey Coach, I have a test tomorrow and I don’t have a No. 2 pencil.’ It sounds crazy but sometimes the difference between a child going to school today or staying at home is as simple as giving them a No. 2 pencil.”
Cofield opens the center at 8 a.m. and stays most days until 9 p.m. Dinner is served, family-style, at 7:30. Cofield provides soap, toothpaste, deodorant or clean socks to participants who need them.
“I try to build a family atmosphere, a home away from home,” he says.
Participants regularly visit the Great Blacks in Wax Museum to learn more about leaders, role models and African-American history. With help from other partners, Cofield is able to offer woodworking classes as well as a summer retreat to a farm, where the youth learn about agriculture and get a chance to explore nature, swim and have fun.
“The three biggest things that keep our children on the blocks and on the corners are that they lack finances, transportation and someone who cares,” Cofield says. “Every kid I deal with, they’re always in need of one of those things, if not all three.
“Well, I’m here to be that someone who cares. And they know me. They know I’m a real person and I’m not just selling them a dream,” Cofield says. “I just want to invest in the children in the neighborhood that, at one point, I helped destroy.”