After she served on the Russell County Board of Education from 1979 to 1983, Charlean Crowell thought of a way she could help alleviate a problem caused by the consolidation of the county’s three high schools into one during the mid-1980s.
“You could only have one varsity basketball team,” she said. “… So you’ve got 15 boys on the team, and you’ve got 500 boys not doing anything.”
Crowell thought to herself, “something needs to be done.”
She got something positive done.
Crowell formed the Lower Russell County Youth Club, which became a nonprofit and tax-exempt organization in 1990. The club, based in Hurtsboro, fills a gap for children ages 5-18 in the rural part of the county, where no Boys & Girls Club or YMCA is nearby. The club also offers girls softball, plus educational field trips when funds are available, Crowell said.
More than 1,000 teens have gone through her program in more than 30 years, she said.
“I see each one of those kids as my own,” said Crowell, 72, the mother of two and grandmother of two.
Despite their home gym being too small to have an official-sized court, she coached her 18-and-under basketball to the 2017 State Games of America national championship in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Victories off the court also factored into the national award she received last month, the California-headquartered Positive Coaching Alliance’s first $10,000 grand prize.
“Coach Crowell helps athletes win in and out of sports,” PCA president Tina Syer, said in the announcement on the alliance’s website. “By creating a positive, character-building youth sports experience and serving as a Double-Goal Coach, she helps youth develop into better athletes and better people.”
The PCA defines as Double-Goal Coach as someone who “strives to win while also pursuing the more important goal of teaching life lessons through sports.”
Russell County High School ninth-grader Jabarrie Jordan, 15, said “it’s scary” to think what life would be like for him and the basketball program’s 44 other members without the club and Coach Crowell.
“A lot of people would be in trouble, because it would be boring,” he said. “But she opened the gym for us to stay active.”
All of which got the attention of the ABC’s “Good Morning America,” which flew Crowell to New York for an interview with co-host Robin Roberts.
‘A drawing card’
Crowell defined positive coaching this way: “You don’t look just to win. You’re not making a basketball player as such… If you lose a game, you don’t see it as the end of the world. You move forward, and you correct your mistakes.”
During breaks from learning basketball skills, Crowell has community leaders and other mentors speak to the boys about life skills.
“We use basketball as a drawing card,” she said. “… I believe in teaching more than just ball.”
For example, she likes to note that the word “life” contains the word “if” — which provides a lesson for her players.
“If I had gotten more homework done, if I had listened to my parents, if I had not gotten in trouble,” she tells them. “Life is about a lot of ifs.”
Summarizing her coaching philosophy, Crowell said, “I involve everybody. If I see a child come in the gym and he’s shy, I will make sure he gets in. Everybody plays. Everybody gets a chance.”
Crowell’s daughter, Tiffany, a chemical engineer in Charleston, S.C., nominated her through an online application.
More than a dozen referrals from folks in the community were included. Crowell didn’t know anything about it until an official from the PCA called her for an interview in March.
“I never expected this to happen,” she said, “but I’m grateful that it did.”
Crowell was notified in April that she won the grand prize.
“It was exciting,” she said, “and I’m not one to get excited easily.”
Crowell called the national recognition “a godsend.”
When a PCA official informed her that “Good Morning America” invited her to appear on the show, she replied, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
She flew to San Jose for the awards ceremony, then from San Francisco to New York for the GMA appearance.
“It wasn’t my first time flying,”she said, “but I’m not all that into airplanes, I can tell you.”
Being on national TV, she said, was “interesting, because I’m not one to wear makeup. … They had me all fixed up. They were so nice.”
GMA co-host Robin Roberts was “so friendly and a very good interviewer.”
The club is housed in the 61-year-old gym at the former Russell Elementary School, which closed in 2011.
For $1 per year, the school district leases the 90-year-old school site to the alumni association of the Russell County Training School, which was a high school for blacks there before it closed in 1970 during integration.
Crowell grew up in Hurtsboro and graduated from the training school in 1965 as the salutatorian of her class. She attended college at Tuskegee “for a minute” but dropped out to help her mother, she said.
She worked at the Fieldcrest Mill in Columbus, then at Diversified Products in Opelika, where she became supervisor of the quality control department.
She is retired and lives in Phenix City with her husband, Thad, who is retired from WestRock. They’ve been married for 48 years.
Crowell noted that only 27 of her 109 seventh-grade classmates ended up graduating with her high school class. She is determined for the club to help give these current high school students a better opportunity than her classmates who dropped out.
“I didn’t want to see these kids being left with that mentality,” she said.
A female coaching males
Jabarrie, who has been attending the club for six years, said being coached by a woman doesn’t bother him because Crowell has a solid reputation for caring about her players as people first.
“She motivates us,” he said. “She tells us to keep our grades up, make sure you’re doing good at school.”
He described Crowell as intelligent. “She does a lot for us. Most people her age wouldn’t take the time out to do what she’s doing.”
Crowell hasn’t heard any of her players complain that they have a female coach.
“I don’t curse and carry on, but I speak their language,” she said. “… If I need guys, I have assistants.”
If her players misbehave at practice, she sentences them to laps or pushups. If the problem persists, she asks them to stay away from the program for a couple days.
She tells them, “give it some thought and come back and let me know what you think.”
Such conflict happens “very seldom,” Crowell said, “because, down deep, they see me like their grandma... They’re well-mannered kids.”
When she walks with her team into an opponent’s gym for tournaments in other towns, she sometimes hears, “Where’s your coach?”
Crowell just laughs.
‘She’s an inspiration’
Damon Lloyd, 19, is a rising sophomore defensive end on the Alabama State football team. He graduated from Russell County High School in 2018. He says the club and Crowell’s mentoring helped him reach those accomplishments.
“She’s an inspiration to the youth,” he said. “She wants us to be better... She keeps us off the streets. It makes me work harder. It’s a blessing to have someone like Miss Charlean and the youth club to help us out.”
His aunt raised him after his mother and stepfather died when he was in middle school. The club, through Crowell’s vision and work, was a sanctuary for him.
“It helped me be more positive,” he said. “… It helped me grow not only as a basketball player but as a person.”
Reverend Herbert Newsome, pastor of Uchee Chapel AME Church in Seale, has two sons who were club members from elementary through high school.
“It gave them something to do to keep them out of trouble,” he said.
“She was a mentor to them and taught them how to behave. She was so good for the kids. They had a lot of respect for her, even unto this day. She’s just a good person, and she always cared about her community.”
When boys can’t have a parent drive them to the gym, they carpool with other club members. Some get rides from Crowell.
She lives 35 miles away from the gym, but she says having that kind of commitment to her community is the way she was brought up in Hurtsboro, whose population was an estimated 580 people in 2017, according to the U.S. Census
“Back in my day, it was a village,” she said. “Your aunts and your cousins and your neighbors, everybody pitched in.”
The school back then, Crowell said, “was the nucleus of the community.”
And the town was filled with activity.
“There were times on the weekend you just couldn’t go downtown, there were so many people,” she said.
The club is open for about three hours after school Tuesdays and Thursdays. They also have a summer program, when they gather early in the morning to beat the heat in the gym without air-conditioning.
The basketball program’s annual fee for each child is $75, but nobody is turned away for their family’s inability to pay.
“They’re low-income,” Crowell said. “The parents do what they can. We rely heavily on fundraising and contributions and donations.”
And prayers, she added.
Fundraisers include barbecues, fish fries and asking for donations outside Walmart.
Crowell and her assistants aren’t paid. The alumni association pays the bill for the gym’s lights. The club’s expenses amount to approximately $15,000 per year, including travel to tournaments, she said.
Out of the $10,000 she won with the grand prize, $7,500 went to the club and the rest was supposed to go to Crowell. But she gave her $2,500 to the club, including $1,200 for the players to have new uniforms.
Asked why she didn’t accept the money, Crowell said, “Sometimes I wonder about myself, whether I’m crazy or not, but I’m having fun doing this.”
Crowell added with a laugh that her husband, Thad, is “the backup money man... I try not to do that, but if it comes to it, I can always depend on him.”
Despite her age, Crowell doesn’t have a certain time-frame to stop coaching.
“I’ll do it with the Lord’s help,” she said.
But she is seeking a successor.
“There are people on my list,” she said. “The list is still kind of long. I’ve got to narrow it down to the short list… I have a certain way I would like it done, and I’m looking for whoever’s going to buy in to the concept.”
For more information about the Lower Russell County Youth Club, go to lrcy.org