PROVIDENCE, RI (WPRI) Brown wrestler Billy Watterson circles on of his teenaged protégés on a mat inside Nathan Bishop Middle School, their arms and heads locked in friendly combat.
If you judge by their height and weight, you’d think Watterson was the student, but that could not possibly shake the confidence of Watterson. The 125 pound college student truly believes his privately funded organization Beat The Streets can bring his sport and better grades to Providence's at-risk students.
“Middle school is the age where things can go wrong or things can go right,” Watterson says during a water break at Beat The Street's second practice. “And wrestling is great because anyone can do it and it’s not too expensive.”
So far, Watterson’s ambitious quest has attracted about 50 students. During practice they are stuffed in a Nathan Bishop room that appears to be made for a dance class instead of wrestling. He’s quick to point out that his non-profit is focused on more than takedowns, half-nelsons and headlocks.
“It's not about wrestling,” he says. “It's about taking the most at risk kids and giving them the confidence to succeed in other areas of their lives.”
He believes it will work because it worked for him when he was in 7th grade. His parents were in the process of divorcing, he was diagnosed with ADD and he was getting in trouble in and out of school.
“I'm short and un-athletic. So, I wasn't doing well in sports and getting C's and F's in school,” he says.
His recalls his turnaround taking about a year and the transformation started with wrestling and ended with becoming an academic All American wrestler at Brown University.
Those memories were reinvigorated when Watterson became a volunteer in the Providence school system. He discovered that fights, weapons, family issues and a mutual disrespect between some students and teachers were part of the mix. Finding out there were no interscholastic sports in the city’s middle schools made the light bulb go on for Watterson.
“So many of these kids need mentors,” he says. “Coaches were my best mentors so I know it could work here.”
Watterson patterns his program after Beat The Streets organizations in New York City and Los Angeles. He has recruited several college wrestlers and other role models to guide his team on and off the mat. And he has the help and guidance of the Providence After School Alliance, an organization that uses private and public funding to offer enrichment programs.
“If you get in trouble, you cannot attend a PASA program,” Watterson tells the group of young boys and girls.
Nathan Bishop Middle School is the first on the mat but Beat The Streets will expand to UCAP Middle School in November. Watterson is confident his mentors and coaches can get through to enough students to impact the city’s drop out rate.
“Wrestling will teach them, if they work hard they'll succeed. They’ll think, I've seen that in wrestling. If I start doing that in the rest of my life, I'll start succeeding there too,” Watterson says.
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