To the community that raised me,
I often interchange the words community and family. Communities should watch out for each other. Families should watch out for each other. Communities should help each other out. Families should help each other out.
I remember during a kickball game in our community on August 9, 2016, a 65-year-old grandma was up to bat. We had these high schoolers that played on the basketball and football teams in the outfield because they had the best hands. When grandma was up to bat all of them took 10-20 steps forward and grandma kicked it over their heads.
They were running to get the ball and we were like, “Ahh! Granny got legs.”
She walked to first base like, “I still got it.”
It was that moment I knew we were onto something special.
But it took me years to not only get to that moment but to help create it.
I grew up in the Glenville neighborhood near the first of 99th and St. Clair. It is the east side of Cleveland. Glenville has a bad rep right now. It is highly segregated. But I want people to know our community isn’t how it’s often portrayed in the media. I brag that Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, one of Cleveland’s most famous hip hop groups attended my second birthday party.
In fifth grade I got straight A’s at St. Aloysius. When school finished that year my mom told me I had to go to summer school. I qualified for The Reach Program, which is for gifted African-American students in the Cleveland area. University School, a private school on 250 acres with a 50-million-dollar building, hosted the program. I did very well in the program and University School offered me a scholarship to attend as a full-time student.
University School was very different from our community. St. Aloysius was 98 percent African-American. University School was six percent black.
I remember my first day at University School. While we were in The Reach Program my mom got into three car accidents. My aunt let her borrow a car that had been stolen. It had some dents and scratches, but it drove fine.
When we pulled up to the circle I saw Lexuses, Beemers, Audis that were all brand new. The cars cost more than 50-60 thousand dollars.
I was like, “Oh my goodness. What is going on?”
I asked my mom to park around the corner and she did.
Once I walked up to the school, I was super intimidated. Nobody looked like me. It took me about three to four months to really get comfortable. Eventually, I realized it’s not where you come from, it is what you can do. I could still open up a book, memorize material, calculate and problem solve.
I did well at University School and applied early decision to Columbia University’s engineering school.
One day in December, after basketball practice, I called my grandma. She said you got a letter from Columbia.
I was like, “ Is it a big letter or little letter?”
She said, “I do not know.”
I told her to open it and it said I was accepted.
It was one of the happiest days of my life.
Eventually, I realized it’s not where you come from, it is what you can do.
I made 80k right out of college at UBS investment bank. By night I was just a party animal, making up for the partying I missed in college because I worked so hard. I had zero cares in the world. I had no sense of community or what it meant to donate to a charity.
I ended up leaving UBS when the housing market crashed and I started my own marketing company and did various startups.
Randomly one day, while I happened to be visiting Cleveland, someone from our community development corporation knocked on my door.
They said, “Hey! We are starting this youth landscaping program. Would you like to be a part of it?”
At the time, I had this big boot on because I tore my achilles playing basketball at Euclid Creek Park. I couldn’t even walk.
He said, “It will pay 12 bucks an hour and you can ride your bike. You don’t have to do much but be a mentor to the kids.”
I took that offer. I wasn’t doing anything else. And I got to meet some of the youth that grew up in our neighborhood, the neighborhood I grew up in ten years prior. One particular kid changed my outlook on life. I forgot his real name but his nickname is Bricks. He wanted to be an interior designer. He said he didn’t want me to tell any of his peers because he was afraid of how they would treat him. They wanted to be musicians, rappers or professional athletes.
I am like, “Dude, that’s awesome. You can do anything you want from this neighborhood. Hey! look at me.”
And then something happened. I felt like I could make an impact. I felt like I had a moral obligation to support this community because I do have the power to create change.
I took over Cleveland’s Youth Landscaping. We provided free landscaping services while helping at-risk youth acquire job skills, financial literacy and entrepreneurship. In the three years I was there, I interviewed over 400 kids. We ended up hiring 25-50 kids each year, so 100-150 kids got paid nine bucks an hour, which is pretty good for a 14-year-old kid.
Recess Cleveland, my own non-profit organization, actually started during that program.
See, at University School we had a field day that we called Founder’s Day. We played large scale games of dodge ball, soccer, tug of war and sports like that. I was really really good at dodge ball in high school, so I wanted to relive those days. I asked five of my employees when was the last time they played dodgeball and four of them said they never played.
I said, “Woah, you haven’t played dodge ball? Woah, this is an injustice.”
That’s the moment I decided to start Recess Cleveland. We provide safe places to play in multiple communities throughout the summers and then we move into schools during the school year.
We call it recess because it is unstructured. The people who attend decide what games we play. It is a way to get together.
I threw our first event on my birthday August 9, 2016. That was the day the grandma showed everyone that “she’s got legs.” But it was so much more than just that moment.
We played 30-on-30 dodge ball. We played soccer. There was a hula-hoop contest. We gave away prizes. We ate together. It was a big kickback. We chilled and got to know our neighbors.
We ended up throwing ten events that first year and averaged about 65 attendees. Recess events include food, music, dancing and concerts.
Recently, one woman said at an event, “I lived in this neighborhood for ten years and I met one of my neighbors who also has lived in this neighborhood for ten years for the first time today.”
The number one outcome we want is relationship building and community engagement. Hopefully, that leads to other benefits, such as crime reduction.
Also, we recently just started adding wraparound services to some of our events. If you come to a recess event you might see The Greater Cleveland Food Bank giving away food. You might see a caravan making healthy smoothies. You might see a non-profit organization giving away free books for the children. It’s all about enjoying the people in the neighborhood and taking advantage of the resources available to us.
Back in the day Glenville was known as the gold coast. There are a ton of young and old black entrepreneurs that own businesses up and down 105th steet. There are a bunch of athletes and well-accomplished writers who have ties to Glenville. Superman was created in Glenville. Olympian Jesse Owens stayed in Glenville for a bit. These are names that are internationally known.
What I want people to know, which I didn’t necessarily realize when I pulled up to University School on my first day of school, is there are a lot of reasons to be proud of our community. I try to promote the fact that you can do anything you want to do from Glenville. Look at me!
I could have stayed in New York. I see all these major donors with their names on buildings, who went off and made millions and decided to make a large donation. I could have been on that same path and I still can, but I choose to be here, on the front lines with you. It gives me a sense of purpose. It gives me a sense of accomplishment when I see a smile on a kid’s face.
I want to play kickball, give kids the experience of playing new games and helping children build relationships with other children in their neighborhood. I want to help our youth practice the skills needed to get a job and retain a job. I sleep a lot better at night not only being a part of this community but helping us all realize the greatness that lies within it.
It doesn’t matter what walk of life you are from or your socioeconomic status. At recess, we are all playing kickball together. We are doing yoga, arts and crafts or bouncing in the bounce house. We are helping shape our community. We are bonding together as we create not just any family, but one big HAPPY family.
Your fellow Glenville native,
Alex Roberston, Founder of Recess Cleveland
Written with Lauren Brill
About the author:
I am the founder of Recess Cleveland, a non-profit organization that aims to help bring our community together through pop-up recess events. Previously, I worked at a bank in New York City but I feel strongly that giving back to my community is my true purpose in life.
About the sponsor and the charity:
The Unsealed, a media company that shares open personal letters, is empowering my voice. They will donate $25 dollars to Recess Cleveland in honor of the first 25 shares of my letter. Recess Cleveland aims to help bring our community together through pop-up recess events. So please share my story, donate to a great cause and let’s make a difference!