Diaby laughed but managed to hold his run for the go signal. And then he shot off, Daniel racing alongside him and giving him a lead that Diaby didn’t really need. “Uh-oh!” David yelled. “He’s quick!” Noreese Kelly, another 16-year-old intern, gave Diaby a high-five as he breezed over the finish line.
These races are important to more than just the younger children in the neighborhood. Like David and Daniel and their fellow interns, Noreese is paid $11 an hour for managing the course and setting up races as part of the JungleGym 2017 Summer Series, in conjunction with the Department of Transportation’s Weekend Walks program. Getting children like Diaby to join the fun is their summer job.
When they’re not organizing races, the interns plan bike rides, work in the two community gardens, help with after-school programs and receive public speaking and leadership training — all part of Concrete Safaris, a nonprofit started nine years ago by a former personal trainer, Mac Levine, to encourage better fitness and eating habits in the community and to help prevent diabetes. East Harlem has the fifth-highest obesity rate in the city.
To aid with job skills training, the teenagers also host birthday parties, outdoor corporate mentoring events and school field days.
Ms. Levine handles the administrative duties in the nearby office on 115th Street at the East Harlem Neighborhood Health Action Center while the interns run the show day to day on the streets.
“I love it,” Noreese said. “It’s productive. It’s a way of communicating with people. And a way of being active. You can succeed in every small thing you do.”
As each child finished the course, Noreese and his fellow workers handed out cards to parents advertising the coming Saturday’s obstacle races on 116th Street and Third Avenue, featuring street bowling, a D.J., face painting and three bouncy houses. The races will be repeated on Aug. 26, with a giveaway of 800 book bags, each filled with school supplies.
About halfway through their shift, the interns’ supervisor, Christopher Hartsfield, 31, showed up to see how things were going. His official title is outdoor play coordinator, and just to goad them on, he gave them a target number to recruit for the day for the obstacle course. “You need 40 kids today,” he says. “Start counting now. And I want photos.”
“Forty?” David shouted. As if in answer to their prayers, a large group of preschoolers from Metro North Early Childhood Center showed up, looking shy and slightly confused by the colorful course. There were three groups of 10. The interns would make their quota.
Not every day is so much fun for the interns — especially hot days. Tents must be assembled and then broken down. Lugging two dozen car tires for the weekend course and filling empty sandbags with dirt in sticky summer humidity are also parts of the job.
But then there are days when 30 preschoolers show up and need obstacle-course guidance.
The children were so small that David carried half of them through the course until they finally got a handle on it. A little girl named Paige was so excited as her friend Olivia ran the course that she let out a series of high-pitched squeals. The interns and the teachers joined in with shouts and claps of encouragement. “Clap it up!” David yelled. “Clap it up for her!” Paige got her turn and was beaming the entire time as she jumped, wiggled and hopped. “Hula that hoop!” one of her teachers yelled.
“I want to do it again!” Paige shouted. So she did. Again. And again.
“That was great,” said Travis Godfrey, a 21-year-old intern, as the children drifted off down the street, bouncing on the sidewalk, much happier than when they arrived. “They showed us some love.”