Class is underway at Beat the Streets' Tuesday night session.
Class is underway at Beat the Streets' Tuesday night session. Credit: Najee Hall

Violence prevention is top of mind for many Clevelanders. Beat the Streets Cleveland works to reduce crime in Ward 5 by teaching the concepts of respect, teamwork, leadership, integrity and perseverance in a nonconventional way. The non-profit uses wrestling as a tool to help cultivate those skills. 

Located in Slavic Village, Beat the Streets Cleveland is one of 11 chapters nationwide. The Cleveland chapter served 1,200 kids across Northeast Ohio this year, with a goal of 1,500 by year’s end. Sessions are free and open to youth from K-12, but registration is required. 

Junior High sessions (7th grade and up) are Monday and Wednesday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Elementary sessions are Tuesday and Thursday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. BTS also works with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to provide  before- and after-school programming.  Thanks to a partnership with ASICS, all participants get brand new tennis shoes to train in.

Signal Cleveland dropped in on a Tuesday evening in November. The noise volume increases the farther you walk in the building as parents and excited children get ready for the evening sessions. Some parents are rushing to fill out the required paperwork minutes before the class gets underway. Anthony Spooner is sanitizing a large black wrestling mat. High school sophomore Brandon Bruce-Bey is warming up off to the side, waiting for the process to be complete so he can take to the mat. 

Children immediately take their shoes off and begin running across the mat for fun. One young girl explodes with glee as she runs to give Coach Spooner a big hug. 

Opening doors to new experiences

In the back of the room, a row of chairs is arranged for parents to watch their children in action. 

Brandon Sims watches as his two sons begin their warmups. His sons have been with BTS Cleveland since its inception in 2016. He praised BTS and the hard-working staff. 

“They have opened doors for my boys, which my wife and I are forever grateful for.” Sims told Signal Cleveland. “Their first time on a plane was because of BTS. They have gotten jobs through BTS. My wife and I have four kids, so we probably wouldn’t have been able to provide  both of our sons to have these kinds of experiences.”

Spooner blows his whistle and asks that participants make their way to the mat. They begin stretches and various exercises that incorporate all areas of the body. They then take a light jog around the facility, running both forwards and backwards. He makes it clear to participants that if any of the coaches are making them upset or uncomfortable, they should immediately let him know. Spooner and the other coaches work to constantly hold one another accountable to create a welcoming space for all.

“It’s not just about wrestling really. That’s such a small piece of this,” Spooner said. “We once had a kid whose mom used to regularly come home intoxicated. He would often come here not to wrestle but just to have a safe space to get away.” 

‘An evolution in my life that has helped me overcome’

Demetrius Williams, executive director of Beat the Streets, is a product of Cleveland. Williams said he grew  up in poverty in the Fairfax neighborhood, but he and his family faced a bigger challenge than lack of money.

“Both of my parents were blind. I am legally blind in one eye and legally deaf in one ear,” Williams said. “If you consider those intangibles, I probably shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I just believe in the concept of hard work paying off.”

Despite the disabilities he and his family faced,  they forged on together. During his youth, he saw teens around him struggling to find their place. That motivated him to take action. 

“I was seeing so many things…peer pressure, a lack of guidance and leadership.” Williams said. “For me, wrestling was an evolution in my life that has helped me overcome many obstacles.”

Wrestling is something Williams has been doing since his high school years at Lincoln West, and he thought that introducing youth to wrestling would bring about positive change. 

While wrestling is the catalyst to get young people to join this program, Williams clarifies that it’s much bigger than that. 

“This is not a wrestling camp–it’s a youth development and mentoring camp that includes wrestling. Our goal is to create quality young men and women of the future, by exposing them to different opportunities and experiences.”

A chance to see the world

Cleveland’s Community Police Commission recently awarded BTS Cleveland a grant for violence prevention and mediation. Thanks to those funds and donations from community members, participants have been able to attend summer camps and wrestling clinics and have even been able to travel abroad, including recent all-expense-paid trips to Spain, Israel and Kenya. 

“Wrestling has taught me so many valuable life skills.” Williams said. “It took me out of my comfort zone, out of my city, and has shown me the world. I want to give these kids that chance too.”

BTS Cleveland is at 6701 Broadway Ave. If you are interested in enrolling your children in the program, contact BTS Cleveland at info@btscle.org or visit the website at btscle.org

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Community Reporter (he/him)
Najee has been a Cleveland Documenter since it started in 2020. He joins Signal Cleveland from a role as an organizer with New Voices for Reproductive Justice. He leads the Central Community Listening Team.