When Denzel Washington was 6 years old, he was shy, overweight and never thought he would be successful.
On Sunday, in Baton Rouge while filming a remake of “The Magnificent Seven” nearby, the now-famous actor said friends and counselors at his local Boys Club in Mount Vernon, New York, taught him lessons that led him to where he is today.
But he warned that children in Baton Rouge may not have the same opportunity.
Baton Rouge is the largest American city without a standalone Boys and Girls Club facility, Washington told club supporters at the De La Ronde Hall downtown.
Instead, the club operates from 10 school sites.
“These children rely on us,” Washington said. “… If we don’t invest now, we’re going to be investing later, $65,000 to $80,000 per inmate. If we don’t pay now, we’re going to pay later, either through our taxes, someone sticking a gun in our face, somebody breaking into our house.”
Washington said he passes the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and Dixon Correctional Institute on his way to “The Magnificent Seven” sets in St. Francisville and Jackson.
The Boys and Girls Club of Greater Baton Rouge, which serves about 10,000 children from ages 6 to 18 through club membership and outreach activities, has launched a fundraising effort for a new central facility. It should be “shovel ready” in two to three years, said Pat Van Burkleo, president of the club chapter.
“We really need this community to get behind Boys and Girls clubs,” Van Burkleo said.
As a boy, Washington’s Boys Club helped him through trying times at home after his parents broke up. He managed to get in some trouble as he grew older — but not as much as his friends who ended up in prison, he said.
“I thought I was a man. I thought I was tougher than my mom,” he said. “I had one foot in the penitentiary. I didn’t go, but I was doing wrong things.”
Washington, the national spokesperson for the youth organization, said the club gave him a sense of belonging and being around responsible adults helped him fall in with the “right pack” of people.
“Initially, it was just going, meeting new friends and competing, and the lessons were being laid in while you were playing basketball or running track,” Washington said. “They weren’t served up as lessons … but that’s what they became.”
Washington told about 30 club members on Sunday to focus on doing something they love doing and using it to help others.
“God blessed each and every one of us with a gift,” he said. “Everybody’s gift is different. Nobody’s gift is more important.”
Some of the youth told Washington they want to be doctors and football players when they grow up. He encouraged them not to give up on those goals but reminded them that hard work is critical.
“Your natural ability will only take you so far,” he said.
Some Baton Rouge club members visited the “Magnificent Seven” set in Jackson last week. Washington wasn’t there at the time, but they got to watch other actors on the job, wear headsets and see how camera operators take different kinds of shots, said 16-year-old Vivian Abram.
The experience is one of many that she and others cherish from their time in the Boys and Girls Club. Zepphrii Prince, 16, said counselors at the club teach him life lessons and encourage him to achieve his dream of becoming an electronic technician when he grows up.
Catyra Duhon, 15, and Kahne Clark, 16, said their counselors are always there for them, either in person or by phone, no matter the time of day or what kind of problem they’re having.
“It’s like a second family because whenever you’re in trouble or need someone to talk to, they’re always there for you,” Kahne said. “… They sit down and actually listen to what you have to say and take it all in and then they think about it and give you advice. … It’s like you feel at home.”
That kind of support “keeps us on the right path,” Catyra said.
Washington told the youth they should be thankful that “somebody loves you enough to bring you to the club.”
“Put your shoes way under your bed at night, so when you wake up in the morning, you have to get down on your knees,” said Washington, who credits his faith for much of his success. “While you’re down there, say thank you for all that you already have. You’ve already got it. You just have to put it to work.”