Lynchburg, VA - Lynchburg police officers are reaching out to teens in our area to keep them from being put behind bars.
Officers are partnering with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Lynchburg and Wal-Mart for a free basketball program.
The idea is to promote positive relationships between police officers and at-risk youth. The police department says it improves self esteem, teamwork and leadership skills. But for one man, it changed his life.
Keion Cunningham was living the fast life. He says he was involved in a gang and drug dealing, until at 14 years-old something convinced him, he needed to make a change.
"My friend's brother got killed. That was my turning point right there. It just made me look at life in a whole different perspective," Cunningham explained.
Officer Travis Dooley works for the police department's gang unit and says there are roughly 380 gang members in the city of Lynchburg alone, a slight increase from years past.
"We have the Bloods, we have the Crips, we have Gangster Disciples. And we're also starting to see a few Latin, Hispanic gangs," said Dooley.
The badges for baseball and badges for basketball program is one of the largest programs at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Lynchburg. Officers partner with teens between 11 and 14 years old, when they're most vulnerable to joining a gang.
"Too much free time equals trouble," said Mark Sheehan, Executive Director of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Lynchburg. "So, it's very important to find a basketball league, find a boys and girls club, find a community center."
Keion Cunningham was sentenced to perform community service at the Boys and Girls Club. And years later, he's still coming back.
"When everyone was telling me that I couldn't do this or that, the club it helped me. It made me a stronger person for real," he said.
Today he's an employee at the club's teen center, reminding others there's life outside the streets. Cunningham hopes to become either a football coach or a teacher.
The Badges for Basketball program begins on March 21st and runs through May. You can register at the Boys and Girls Club in person at their building, located at 1101 Madison Street. You can also call Officer Jeff Rater with LPD with questions. His number's 434-455-6060 extension 573.