From 4 – 7 p.m. every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the Play Right Sports Academy runs programming for the youth of Albion at Marshall Opportunity High School. Here, students can have a break from the stationary nature of school by playing sports with volunteers.
Albion first-year student and frequent Play Right volunteer, Ivan Green, says the program is fun, but it’s more than just recreation.
“We also help them work on their academics, because some kids are just there to play basketball,” Green said. “And we want to change that, because they have to realize their academics have to come first.”
Play Right Sports Academy Founder and President, Milton Barnes, alumnus ‘79, says the purpose of the program is to help the youth of Albion in a variety of ways.
“It’s a program where we’re trying to instill the value of education,” Barnes said. “The importance of not just playing right, but also doing the right thing.”
Life skills, basketball skills, academic support and health and fitness, are the core components of the Play Right program, as outlined in their website. The meaning behind these values, though, is steeped in the history and life of its founder.
Born in Saginaw County and graduating from Saginaw High School in 1975, Barnes was one of 11 children in his family. Though he said his neighborhood was a loving, embracing community, the young people of Saginaw had challenges growing up.
“It had its level of negativity in terms of street life, and paths that many African-American young men and women have to choose between,” Barnes said. “It’s not always easy for many to make that choice, or make the right choice.”
Barnes’ father was a preacher, who raised his family to respect and value discipline, a virtue he says gave him an advantage in life.
“Obeying back then didn’t mean that I didn’t have a mind of my own, but that I understood and respected my elders, so to speak. Appreciating it came later in life,” Barnes said. “Eventually it helped make me a better student, athlete and ultimately a better person.”
After graduating from Albion College in 1979, Barnes went on to coach basketball at several levels, and he even served as the athletic director for Albion High School until 1991. He later coached teams throughout the US and internationally, eventually becoming an NBA scout in 2009.
After years of travelling, Barnes returned to Albion, where he founded the Play Right Basketball Academy in 2016.
“It kinda came about as a result of things happening that might, on the surface, be interpreted as negative things that happened in my life,” Barnes said. “I decided that whatever I did, I wanted to make sure I was in a position to give back.”
Barnes wanted to support the community of Albion, in particular Albion students, who, in 2016, had only recently lost their school district a year earlier.
With the help of Battle Creek YMCA Director Jill Hinde, many other partners and volunteers like Green, Play Right Sports Academy has worked towards Barne’s vision, despite the challenge to come.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, the academy was forced to get creative. First, they brought the program outside to Victory Park, where kids could play safely. Then, they took the opportunity to present outdoor sports like golf and tennis, changing the former Play Right Basketball Academy into the Play Right Sports Academy.
Barnes says that through all of the challenges, he’s just enjoyed being able to contribute to the community of Albion, and doesn’t feel the need to be recognized.
“I’m not here for that. Milton Barnes doesn’t need no more pats on the back, I don’t need that,” he said. “It’s not that big of a deal for me, because what I do is what I think was given for me to do.”
What Barnes does ask, however, is that students of Albion College looking to make a difference with their careers look to the community of Albion for experience.
“There are lessons to learn if you expand your classroom, and I encourage students, if they want to get a complete education, to get involved with the Albion community,” Barnes said. “And it doesn’t have to be Play Right Sports Academy, there are other programs that need college students to serve as role models.”
For Barnes, he sees volunteering as an opportunity for those at Albion College looking to make a difference for young people through careers in education.
“Don’t think for one second that there is a perfect school district for you to go to, that doesn’t exist,” Barnes said. “You have to be prepared, and the best way to be prepared is to get experience volunteering in programs like Play Right.”
Green, an education major himself, said having role models makes a huge impact on the youth of Albion.
“The kids are always excited to see guys like me that are in college,” Green said.
Today, programs like Play Right present an important opportunity for safe recreation for kids and teens, Green said.
“It helps out not only the children, but even the parents. They need a break from their kids, and this is a place where kids can be active,” Green said. “This program helps them a lot to stay off the streets and just find something that’s going to benefit them in a positive way.”
For programs like the Play Right Sports Academy, volunteers are always needed, and liking or knowing sports is not a requirement, Green said.
“Just for people to be there and help these kids in whatever way they can,” Green said.