(Photo by Abigail Matthews, comms dir. of The Tender Bridge)

By Tawanda W. Johnson,
Special to the AFRO

For Daryl Fletcher, 21, a player on the Baltimore Banners hockey team since he was 7, the experience has meant more to him than he ever could have imagined. 

“It’s about family,” he said. “It’s a big support system.” 

Fletcher added that he’s grateful for the guidance he has received under the leadership of Noel Acton, executive director of The Tender Bridge, the organization that sponsors the hockey team for ages 10-22.  

Acton, 79, started the organization in 2003 to help marginalized youth  prone to violence in areas of East Baltimore embrace positive life choices. He said he and the organization’s coaches have mentored “thousands” of Baltimore youth through hockey programs, field trips, and other activities. And while the hockey team and activities attract the students, Acton notes that the mentorships have kept them involved over the long term. 

“When I was married, I never had any biological children. The participants have all become my children. The Banners is not just a team for our kids. It’s a family,” he said. Acton’s dedication to the young men hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last year, the National Hockey League named him the winner of the Willie O’Ree Community Service Award for using hockey to positively impact his community.  

As Acton considers retirement in the future, he wants to ensure that the organization remains secure. The Baltimore Children & Youth Fund (BYCF), which awarded Tender Bridge a $150,000 grant payable over three years, will help Acton achieve that goal. 

“The BYCF grant will allow us to build a strong organization that will continue to make significant changes in life outcomes for some of the most marginalized kids in the city,” he said. 

Jay’Quan Washington, 20, who serves as co-captain of the Banners with Fletcher, said participating on the team for the past eight years helped him find refuge from a difficult home life. 

“It let me be a kid,” he recalled, adding hockey wasn’t always easy to learn, but he was determined to stick with it. “Nothing is impossible, if you work hard at it.”  

Both Washington and Fletcher are paying it forward with the younger Baltimore Banners. 

“Daryl and I are both mentoring a few kids, showing them (the positive lessons) we’ve learned,” said Washington. 

Fletcher and Washington added that they are excited about their future and thankful that their Baltimore Banners “family” helped them get on the right track in life. 

Fletcher, who attends Sussex County Community College, said he’s thinking about careers as a “football player, public defender, and coach.”   

An art aficionado, Washington is the business owner of AP Art Squad, which helps artists secure various items needed to carry out their creative visions. 

“We’re all about helping artists,” he said. 

Matt Leone is proud of his mentees and said mentoring the young men is “one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. I jumped in thinking I’d be coaching hockey, and now these players are truly family. They make me better every day, and I hope they feel the same way.”