MIAMI (CBSMiami) — The Liberty City Optimist Club is widely known for some of the NFL players who started out there, and for its local celebrity co-founder Luther “Uncle Luke” Campbell.
For over thirty years it’s been a safe haven through its sports programs. But it’s also home to an after-school program, in partnership with The Children’s Trust. Kids get snacks, academics, tutoring, activities, field trips, and much more.
The program recently received national recognition and embodies the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.”
A 2018 docuseries “The Warriors of Liberty City” on Starz, detailed the story of the club. It was co-produced by LeBron James and Luther Campbell, who went from rapper to businessman to coach.
The series is about the optimist club he co-founded in the neighborhood where he grew up. Antonio Brown, Chad ‘Ochocinco’ Johnson, and Davonta Freeman are some of the famous football players from Liberty City.
For Campbell, it is personal. As a kid, he had to travel to Miami Beach to join a football league. So, when Sam K. Johnson asked him to start the youth sports program at Charles Hadley Park, the answer was easy.
“I said, ‘I will help you sponsor baseball if you help me do football’ because as a kid growing up in the neighborhood all there was is sandlot,” Campbell shared.
He made good on his word and the sports they offered have evolved and thrived.
In 2017, an afterschool program opened for kindergarten through 12th grade, it partnered with The Children’s Trust and it is at capacity serving about one hundred kids.
“We have, for the older ones STEM, entrepreneurship, arts, dance and then we have a sports program after 6 p.m.,” said program director Yolanda Bethune. She and program manager Tameika Wiley came here as young mothers and basically never left.
“I started as a parent when my kids played sports here, basketball and baseball,” Bethune said.
“I was a single mother, so I depended on the coaches to discipline the boys,” Wiley recalls. “[The coaches] they were more mentors, father figures, to quite a few because a lot of the kids were fatherless. They played more of an intricate role in developing them as men as opposed to it’s just a game of football.”
Campbell, who remains involved as president of the organization, says it was never really about the game.
“We use sports as a tool to draw them in but it’s really an educational program,” he admits, adding “I don’t play when it comes to our kids.”
Tools include Shirley Lamb Presley, a ‘crown jewel’ of the program according to Campbell. “Coach Lamb” is a tutor, now retired educator. Spending time with kids one on one when needed to bring their academic skills up. She’s been doing this for over thirty years. She says she’s driven by what happens off the field when her kids make the honor roll.
“It really makes me feel good. I’m doing more now than when I was working,” Lamb Presley beams.
Academics, activities, snacks, and field trips, for kids who spend more time here than at home. It’s both safe haven and life lessons.
“The importance of school the importance of discipline is understanding that there is life beyond the streets of Liberty City,” said Wiley.
Bethune and Wiley were recently recognized by the Adidas initiative “Honoring Black Excellence” which highlights black individuals year-round for their commitment to underserved youth. Adidas celebrated them with a beautiful mural painted on the club by the entrance. Adidas also supports the club funding uniforms and coaches.
Looking ahead, they would love to expand with more locations. Campbell is proud of what they have done and loves welcoming the next generation.
“To see them come back with their kids that’s the most beautiful part.”