Newark vice principal goes 'old school' to keep kids out of trouble

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on August 09, 2016

Akbar Cook doesn't want this story to be about him.

Sorry, Mr. Cook. I can't do that.

You're hard to ignore when you've managed to keep 80 to 100 young people off the streets on which you grew up in Newark's West Ward.

"I don't do it for kudos,'' Cook said. "This is what I signed up for."

And he does it without much sleep, raising the eyebrows of those who know him, hoping the 40-year-old doesn't burn out.

Cook, a family man who has been married 14 years and has three children, leaves his home in the Poconos early in the morning and drives more than an hour to Hunterdon County's Pottersville, where he works as a program coordinator at a summer day camp for city kids.

By 4 p.m., Cook is on his way to West Side High School in Newark, where he serves as vice principal. He's there with a small staff to open the gym – that's where all of those kids who Cook saves from the streets go three nights a week. 

From 6 to 11 p.m., the joint is filled, mostly with boys and young men, ages 10 to 25, with younger players competing on separate courts. Some he knows, some he doesn't, but they come from all over the city to stay out of trouble.

"If I wasn't doing this, I'd probably be on the block,'' said Davon Nelson, 21.

The time period is crucial. That five-hour window is when idle young people can find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Too much of that happened last summer.

Each time that something happened involving a West Side kid, Cook said it was probably someone he knew or had counseled.

This summer, though, Cook made it his business to be sure that things would be different. He called on the West Side Alumni Group and the MCJ Amelior Foundation, which has adopted the school and funds some of its academic and enrichment programs.

Cook's idea is simple – give kids something to do in a safe place, particularly at night. The concept comes from his childhood, when he was always at the West Side Boys and Girls Club.

"I wanted to create the same type of feeling,'' Cook said.

With only one Boys and Girls Club left in the city, Cook figured the gym could be his own version of a community haven.

He calls it the Lights On Program, which started on July 5. The word spread from one ear to another that the gym would be open for activities through Aug 29. The next thing Cook knew, the gym was averaging 80 kids.

Inside, they play basketball, ping-pong, board games and card games. Those waiting their turn sip on water and eat free meals provided by the Amelior Foundation. Out front, there's a knock hockey table and a medical van. The girls who come to the gym dance to Jersey club music pumping through a speaker. Some play games, too. At dusk, Cook sets up X-Box and PlayStation systems that project sports video games onto the school's walls. It looks like a movie from a distance, but that's Lebron James dunking on someone.

The gym is more than a magnet for kids. Adults come, too. While his two sons are shooting hoops, Abdul Cameron is in the weight room working out.

"It keeps my mind off the negative energy,'' he said.

Without the gym, many of the fellas said they're not sure what they'd be doing, heaping credit on Cook, who shies away from the limelight.

Mr. Cook, it's okay to wear the community honor badge. You've earned it.

Alfonzo Anderson, who  graduated from West Side last year, said you saved his life. Remember when you spent five hours talking to him, making him see the dead-end track he was on. The 19-year-old hasn't forgotten that. He stopped fighting, getting in trouble and getting high.

Because of you, he gave up the street corner for a community college in Cheyenne, Wyo. He's on the basketball team and getting good grades, an achievement he didn't think was possible in high school.

"I look at him as a father figure,'' Anderson said. "He showed me a different way.''

His athletes get it, too. They are members of the West Side High School basketball team, which he led to its first championship this year.

Yup, Cook, is the head basketball coach, too.  And when he's not at the gym program on those three nights, he's coaching teams on Tuesday and Thursday nights as part of a Newark summer league.

His guys see the time he puts in with them, but they say it's more about life than basketball.  Cook's message of manhood and personal responsibility sticks with them.

"He knows how to vibe with kids,'' said Yasim Hooker, 17. "I've never met a hard-working man like (him) at his age.''

His example commands their attention, compels kids to listen to this role model.

"Plus he's a big guy, so people are kind of scared of him,'' said Quayon Williams, 17.

We laughed at that one. Yes, he's 6 feet 7 inches tall, carrying 300 pounds. He can be strict, but Cook is fun and downright silly as he empties his heart into these kids.

It's 11 p.m. Time to go home, but Cook has one more stop.  There's always extra food left over, unopened meals the kids haven't eaten. Cook drives to Newark Penn Station and gives it to the homeless. 

Now, he can leave.

Sheridan, his wife, calls him on the road to make sure Cook is awake, knowing he's tired but understanding that's he's deeply committed to what he's started, making it hard to see the family. His sons are 7, 9 and 18. They come to the gym, too, sometimes and his wife works with him at the summer camp.

"We have a jewel in the heart of the city and nobody knows about it,'' he said, talking about the open gym.

You got that right, Mr.Cook.

That jewel would be – you.

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