Alvin Williams can relate to scoldings. When he was 14, he was the camp’s demon. His favorite sign would be the universal sign for “bleep you,” the middle finger. He would sign to new campers, “You’re gay,” and chuckle at their discomfort. He would pick on innocent kids who were away from home for the first time.
“He was the worst,” says Stuart Klugler, a coach and counselor. “Now look at him.”
Yes, look at him. Williams, 33, is a welder in Atlanta and has been a trusted counselor at the camp for 10 years.
Williams uses sign language to explain himself. He was immature, but the camp’s environment finally grabbed hold and shook the punk out of him. It helped that Glenn threatened to send Williams home.
It is not all tough love at the camp. Rose Maiten of the Mississippi School for the Deaf lost her hearing at age 3 when she suffered a stroke. She also lost the majority of the function in her right arm. Unaware of the issue with her right arm, a coach asked her to dribble down the floor left-handed and dribble back right-handed, which she could not do.
Feeling humiliated, Rose burst into tears.
Tiffany Leach, a counselor, and others worked to comfort her. She was asked to do the best she could with either hand and the crisis passed.
The empathy trickles down from Glenn. He got up from his chair during a contentious championship game between the orange and green teams and reminded the coaches that the reserves at the end of the bench needed to play more. One of those reserves, 14-year-old Bruce Gemmer, a slight left-hander from Taylor Mill, KY, threw in a 15-footer that stripped the net. He also scored after a pump fake under the basket to help the orange pull away for the win. There were cheers you could hear and cheers you could see. Some deaf campers stuck out their arms and palms in the direction of Gemmer and shook them, the deaf person’s sign for applause.
There are success stories all over the camp. Travis Hardy was in a mainstream school from the first to fifth grade. “I didn’t learn a thing. I fell behind because they were going too fast,” he signed to Merlino. He entered the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, whose alumni include Ray Charles, and Hardy got on track. He has been at Glenn’s camp four years and finally made the camp’s All-Star team and was the 2011 Free-Throw Shooting Champion.
What Glenn and his counselors seem to cherish most are the grateful kids who relish the opportunity the camp provides. “They’re receptive, and there are fewer smart alecs than you might find at another basketball camp,” Glenn says.
But there are still some antics. Look closely and you can see the silent trash talking. Someone will slap an open hand turned sideways signaling “cheap” after a shot is banked in from 20 feet. A fist might get wagged in your face, which means, “You ain’t got nothin.’”
Glenn is the rainmaker who cobbles together donations of cash and charity to keep the camp doors open. Josh Smith of the Hawks paid for breakfast to be brought in all week for the 2011 Camp and paid for the mid-week cookout at Stone Mountain Park. Frazier walked up to Glenn at a Hawks game this season and handed him a check. Jamaal Anderson, a defensive end on the Indianapolis Colts whose father is deaf, paid the rental fees for vans and the gas to carry players to different gyms where space has been donated. Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers general manager, sent a check to support the 2011 camp. Nike provided shoes for the All-Star Game.
The spirit of the camp has washed over a cavalcade of Glenn’s friends, who are the coaches and counselors. After being named the camp MVP for three years (’81-83), Brown went off to college but still managed to come to camp 31 of the 32 years. Merlino has been a coach at the camp for 30 years. Klugler, even after suffering a head injury in a softball game, has been to camp 24 years. Leach no longer works at the Mississippi School for the Deaf but still brought kids to the 2011 camp because they had no other way to get there. Greg White of the Decatur Recreation Department helps find gym space and housing. The list of the devoted goes on and on.
Some years it has been a challenge for Glenn to raise funds, but he has never closed the doors. His son Mike, who suffered a heart defect at birth, is usually at his side throughout the week, which includes Fridays when Glenn sits and writes modest checks for gasoline to counselors who have ferried kids from Mississippi, Alabama and other states.
“There were some years where we didn’t have enough money when the camp started, and I didn’t know how we were going to pay the bills by the end of the week,” Glenn says. “This is one of the miracles in my life. You see how we run things here; it’s tight. We do not have an endowment; we do what we can for these kids.
“This camp, I truly believe, is ordained.”