By John Gillooly
Journal Staff Writer
Posted Apr. 11, 2016 at 8:42 PM
PROVIDENCE — "Why can’t we do it in Rhode Island like they do it in Massachusetts?"
That seems to be a common refrain around Rhode Island these days. It doesn’t seem to matter if it's education reform, business initiatives or medical innovation, Rhode Island is constantly being compared with the Bay State and usually Little Rhody comes up short in the comparison.
That’s why, as a Rhode Islander, it felt good to read a front-page story in the Boston Globe on Friday to the contrary. For once not only can Rhode Island match a successful program in Massachusetts, but the program here in the Ocean State is even bigger.
The Globe story was about how a nonprofit wrestling program for Boston public middle-school students is — as the headline reads — "Helping students grapple with life."
It tells how the program, Boston Youth Wrestling, helps fill a gap in the athletic opportunities available for urban middle school students. These are opportunities that can give urban kids, many of whom are at risk, a sense of purpose. It can teach discipline and dedication and it can help young people from getting — as one student in the Globe said — "caught up in dumb stuff."
It was just about this time two years ago that I wrote a story about a similar program in Providence. The program, called Beat the Streets, had been started in 2013 by Billy Watterson, who at the time was a Brown University junior and a member of the Bears varsity wrestling team.
Watterson had been doing some volunteer work in Providence and noticed a lack of after-school athletic activities for the city's middle school students. Sure the kids in the city played basketball and for two decades there has been the Providence Cobras, an outstanding youth track program run by Thom Spann and Kevin Jackson.
But not every kid in the city likes basketball or wants to run. Watterson saw a need for more and he felt a middle school wrestling program was what he could do to help make a difference.
Watterson was working from personal experience. When he was in middle school in Pound Ridge, N.Y., he was 90 pounds and didn’t really care that much about school.
"I was getting C's and F's in school, I was struggling," Watterson said two years ago.
But he was introduced to wrestling and started developing a sense of purpose and personal pride along with a work ethic. When he started having some success in wrestling, he realized that if he worked hard in other aspects of his life he could be success just like he was doing on the mat.
He had learned wrestling is a sport in which you don’t have to be the most athletic or fastest to be successful. You just have to be willing to work at developing fitness and technique.
Watterson wanted to give some Rhode Island urban students the same opportunity. So he took a year off from Brown and dedicated it to building the Beat the Streets program.
He incorporated the program as a nonprofit, formed a board of directors and began the task of convincing urban public school educators that this was a good program for kids, even if there wasn’t a tradition of wrestling programs in the state’s cities.
Like every program, it started with a small group of students, boys and girls, from a couple of Providence middle schools. But it kept building. In the fall of 2014, Watterson returned to Brown for his senior year, but he stayed involved with the program and still is.
Today, he's listed as the program’s executive director and Hope High wrestling coach Ed German is the program director.
According to the Globe story, the Boston program had about 250 participants this year. The Providence Beat the Streets program had 450 student participants this season.
Beat the Streets now has teams at seven Providence middle schools and has expanded to include teams from two Central Falls middle schools. The network of partners now includes the Providence After School Alliance, the Providence School Department, the Providence Recreation Department along with Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island.
They practice two days a week at their schools from October through March, and before every practice there is a mandatory 45-minute tutoring session with volunteers from local colleges. Once the regular season ends, the students can continue working with coaches on weekday nights and on weekends at some Providence recreation centers.
Every student-athlete also is assigned to a mentor group, consisting of one adult and four students. Being able to compete, getting team gear and winning awards all are connected to school attendance.
The benefits of the program go well beyond the wrestling mat. But there have been plenty of triumphs that also have shown up on the scoreboard. Six of the teams competed in the statewide middle school wrestling league and one Providence school, Nathanael Greene, won a divisional title with only one loss.
It’s probably not surprising that people with the same motivations know each other no matter where they live.
"We actually work with the Boston Youth Wrestling program at lot," said Watterson.
For once the news in Rhode Island is just as good as it is in Massachusetts.