The program began in 2011 as a way for middle schoolers in Baltimore City to learn life skills through wrestling. Beat the Streets aims to foster an environment that combines physical and mental development through a wrestling and tutoring program, as stated on the organization's website.
"Wrestling is the hook," Henry said. "You learn how to handle adversity, how to get back up off the mat after getting your butt kicked. We offer evidence-based, life-skills training and character-building exercises to apply to your life. The focus is on retention and to keep them wrestling through high school."
Henry has expanded the program to 14 schools in the city, and 220 middle schoolers and 120 high school kids are participating. There is a season-ending eight-team tournament. He holds summer camps at Loyola University and Morgan State, where kids focus on STEM education and create innovation projects.
This summer, BTS held its first-ever father-son camp in rural Pennsylvania, and Penn State wrestler Bo Nickal, a two-time NCAA champion at 184 pounds, offered instruction.
Two wrestlers from the program are grappling for their college teams. Tyshaun Williams wrestles for Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Charles Griffin for Ellsworth Community College (Iowa).
Overall, the results have been excellent.
"We are collecting the data," he said. "Eighty-five percent of our students graduate from high school and go to college. They come back to work the summer camps."
But the father of four who resides in Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood is a one-man show. He drives wrestlers to the matches, arranges the weigh-ins, conducts the weigh-ins, referees the matches, breaks down the mats and sometimes takes the kids for something to eat and then home. He doesn't have time left to run the nonprofit.
"I've refereed every match -- for seven years. I might have to get a night job to pay the bills," he said. "If I don't do it, it isn't going to get done. I'm just the glue. We need board members, time and money. We need to find people who can make a difference."
For now, the program is part of the city school budget at the majority of sites with volunteers and teachers coaching. That could change at any time. Among the schools involved are Cherry Hill Elementary/Middle School, Benjamin Banneker, James McHenry and William Paca. Henry does have coaches at each of the 14 schools. This year the students will pay a fee of $25 to participate.
"There is no guarantee that the funding will continue. At some schools, we find ways to be creative and partner. Coaches are the most valuable resource," Henry said. "The schools give us a room and the mats. The kids go for it naturally. It's the only combat sport in school."
Henry wrestled at Dunbar, graduated in 1995 and went on to wrestle at Morgan State until the school dropped the program one year later. Henry graduated with a degree in chemistry.
He worked for biotech companies for a few years before launching BTS.
Henry's passion is infectious. A video on the BTS Facebook page shows a boy with his wrestling ear guard on walking to school. Henry asks him, "Do you sleep with them on?"
"Yes," the boy says. "I'm always prepared for wrestling."
"Baltimore gets a bad rap. It's in need of development. Trauma has impacted the children over generations," Henry said. "I'm trying to do something valuable for the community."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Lydell Henry
Issue 248: October 2018