COLUMBIA — It’s a Monday at the Boys & Girls Club in downtown Columbia. Two staff members can’t work on Mondays, and a third called in sick. Unit Director Deronne Wilson has been running around all afternoon, shuttling kids from schools to the club in its van and coordinating his skeleton staff. He’s had a blur of a day so far, the kind he says you need your track shoes for.
Wilson bounces in and out of the club in his usual attire of a hooded zip-up sweatshirt, sweatpants and Nike basketball shoes. As more kids filter in, he waves and asks how they’re doing. Sometimes they answer brightly, other times they stare at their feet. Suddenly, he’s out the door to pick up more kids.
The Boys & Girls Club of the Columbia Area is part of a nationwide network of clubs serving disadvantaged children ages 6 to 18. This one serves mostly African-American children from low-income households, and it’s not unusual for a child to be parented by a single mother. This is where Wilson fits in.
He spends a lot of time in the building on Fay Street. The interior reflects the wear brought on by nine years of excitable kids. Small chunks of ceiling plaster have peeled, leaving splotchy gray bumps like a topographical map. Industrial-strength carpet, the kind with so many colors in it you miss the stains, runs beneath a hodgepodge of furniture. White bits of notebook paper and a few Cheerios dot the floor.
Most of the walls are unadorned, the paint yellowing from its original tan. One of the few posters states the first rule of this club: “inside voices.”
On this short-staffed Monday afternoon in February, the volume is rising. The elementary school children are supposed to be eating their snacks — sandwiches with applesauce and carrots — but most crowd around the foosball and pool tables. Others sit around a large classroom table. It’s getting louder now. Two kids play-fight over a pool cue. The foosball handles spin wildly. The chatter and after-school energy makes the room hum.
Then, Wilson walks in. Thirty faces turn, mouths puckering in mid-word. They need to be quiet and eat their snacks, he tells them. The escalating noise fades.
"I like that volume level better now," Wilson says.
Currently, the club has about 80 regular attendees out of about 120 on the roster. Although after-school activities for the younger ones are held in the former Field Elementary School down the street, all ages crowd into the main building for snack time.
Wilson can cut through the chaos because the children know him. It starts with high-fives in the hallway and help on their math homework. It continues with patience and sincere questions about how their day has been. If something’s not right, he bends down to eye level and figures it out with them. His thinking is if they know he cares about them now, maybe they’ll come to him when things look dark.
Wilson's fathering begins at home
A dozen years ago, with a newly minted bachelor's degree, Wilson did not see himself running the day-to-day operations of the Boys & Girls Club. Now, he has a hard time picturing himself anywhere else. Wilson grew up without his father around and now serves as a father figure for many of the kids there, and he takes pride in the role.
But his fathering sensibility began with his own son. Isaiah Wilson, called "Jig" by his friends, is a skinny fifth-grader with rails for arms and legs and a 3-pointer that shoots pretty much anybody out of the gym. It's hard to catch Isaiah without his eyes wide with curiosity. He looks like his dad; they both wear a pair of Air Jordans every day and keep their hair cropped short — although in Wilson's case, it's not entirely voluntary. His wife, Billie Wilson, jokes about Isaiah being his father's “mini-me.”
Isaiah is a relatively carefree kid, prone to giggling and dedicated to his X-Box 360. He gets down on himself when the basketball refuses to fall. He loves basketball, his dad’s sport. Isaiah plays hard-nosed basketball nearly every day with the teens. He thrives with the collection of friends at the club, but his best friend is his father. They do almost everything together.
Walking through the former Field Elementary on that same Monday with his head bowed and a frown, Isaiah keeps his eyes on the floor until his father interrupts.
“Did you get your backpack? ‘Cause I left it,” Wilson asks. Isaiah was supposed to remember his backpack from the club’s other building.
“No,” he mumbles. Now they'll have to go back over and grab it before he can go home.
Wilson looks at Isaiah for a second and pounces. Wrapping his arm around his son's neck, Wilson corrals him into a gentle headlock and tickles him.
“I’m going to make you smile,” Wilson jokes. “I’ll make you smile.”
Isaiah holds off as long as he can, lips pursed, before he bursts out laughing.
Playing both Mom and Dad
Deronne Wilson grew up in Moberly with his mother, Virginia Wilson, and grandmother, Dottie Arthur. Dottie built the house he lived in for most of his teenage years from the ground up. His father divorced Virginia and left their lives when Deronne was 6. He doesn't have many memories of the man.
Virginia says that with both her and her mother to dote on him, Deronne grew up spoiled. Virginia worked multiple jobs to support them, but she still found time to throw the baseball around with him in the backyard and rebound for him on the basketball court. They traveled to Cardinals and Royals games. They played wiffle ball. She gave him "the talk" on the birds and the bees. Virginia was both mom and dad, and Deronne says he learned everything he knows from her.
Still, there were times he missed having a father figure. At Boy Scout camp-outs, other kids would ask where his dad was and Deronne felt resentful — why couldn't his dad be there? Virginia could only help so much when Deronne made a Pinewood Derby car and so she asked a male friend for help.
Virginia turned to sports to provide Deronne with male role models. Coaches, she thought, would provide discipline like a father would. Deronne played year round, including summer basketball camps at MU. He grew up playing basketball with kids in his neighborhood and against the likes of Tyronn Lue, a former NBA star from Mexico, Mo.
In his senior year of high school, Wilson moved with his mother to Columbia and starred in basketball at Rock Bridge High School. He received scholarship opportunities to play in college but turned them down, preferring to party his way through a couple of schools before focusing on a business degree at Columbia College.
Today, he uses basketball to connect to his son.
For Wilson, coaching his son’s Midwest Sports Academy league team fills a void left when he quit playing basketball.
On game day, Wilson paces the sideline as patiently and calmly as he can, but a current of childlike excitement runs through him when the ball's on the court. He harps on discipline and defense but lets his team shoot the lights out and have fun. His love for basketball, and his son, combine to showcase his passion.
In a gym in north Columbia where the team is based, you can’t miss Wilson's booming voice. “Last time. Bring it in,” he barks as he directs his players into a huddle. They clap slowly, then louder and faster.
“Let’s go. Let’s go,” Wilson says, pumping up the players. “1-2-3 Orangemen,” they yell in unison.
It’s not that he’s yelling — he’s just loud. Because of the Boys & Girls Club, he’s practiced at cutting through kindergartners with sugar in their systems. The squeak of shoes on the damp floor, whistles and the murmur of parents is nothing. His wife jokes that during team huddles, Wilson’s X’s and O’s carry so well he can't help but give away his team's strategy.
The game begins, and Wilson takes his position on the sidelines. About 5-foot-10, he is decked out in the usual, loose-fitting brown and orange sweats, the team colors. Even his shoes have orange streaks. The fluorescent gym lights shimmer off his bald head. A thin, groomed goatee and mustache outlines his lips. When an Orangemen shot goes up, Wilson leans with the ball like a golfer, willing it into the hole.
There’s hardly space for the fans in the claustrophobic gym, with its leaky ceiling and tiled floors. None of the Orangemen fifth- and sixth-grade boys seems to mind. They know the place well and have won most of the trophies shining through a back-room window.
Constantly leaning over the sideline and howling directions, Wilson propels his team to a jump in points. Even with the lead safe, he has trouble staying behind the white line. When it comes to his son's team, he never quits coaching.
Father to the community
It was Isaiah who got Wilson started at the Boys & Girls Club. Twelve years ago, Billie broke the news that she was pregnant.
Wilson transferred to Columbia College, finished his degree and began looking for work. He says he took a job at HeadStart, which prepares preschoolers for elementary school, so he could learn to be the best father he could be.
About seven years ago, he joined the Boys & Girls Club as technology director in what was supposed to be a temporary summer position. But the sports and fitness position opened up, and Wilson saw his name all over it. His job was to connect to kids with sports, and it fit perfectly with his love of basketball. About two years later, he became the club's unit director.
Wilson runs day-to-day operations: coordinating the programs, disciplining the children, hiring and training the staff. Over the years, he has mopped floors, cleaned up vomit, set mousetraps and worked to change young lives.
In a challenging stretch for the Boys & Girls Club, Wilson has been a constant. In his time there, the organization has had four executive directors; they run the financial side of things, coordinating donations and setting up fundraising events. Wilson hopes to one day run his own Boys & Girls Club as an executive director.
Jim Sharrock, a former board member of the Columbia club, thinks Wilson would perform well in the role but that he’s invaluable in his current job now because kids respect him so much.
Becoming a father did it. Wilson remembers Lamaze classes, ultrasound appointments, picking out a baby-room set with bears and basketballs and picturing his unborn boy in tiny Air Jordans. Virginia Wilson recalls his frantic phone call: “I got my son, I'm gettin' a son, I wanted a boy, I'm gettin' a son!"
Isaiah’s first words, Wilson said, were "ball" and "Dada." The boy was sitting in his high chair and a game was on TV when he pointed and said, "ball." Wilson looked at his wife and tried to figure out what Isaiah was saying. Then he said it again: "ball, ball, ball, ball, ball." "Dada" wasn't far behind, and Wilson remembers wanting to be everywhere his dad hadn’t been and wanting to do everything for his son.
Somewhere along the way, though, Wilson became a father to more than just his son. It wasn’t his original plan, but a community of kids has benefited.