When arriving at the Team Walker Learning Center in Jersey City, N.J., you are greeted by a large, blue and white sign. Inside, the tiles, chairs and tables all follow the same color pattern.
This is Jerry Walker’s dream. The former Seton Hall men’s basketball standout founded Team Walker in 1996 in order to give back to underprivileged children in his home community.
The non-profit, which Walker started with his brother Jasper, serves children ranging from the ages of 8 to 18. During the academic year, it runs as an after-school program, and during the summer it acts as a camp during the day.
The mission for the organization came to Walker during one offseason of his basketball career. The idea was based off the work his grandfather, James “Pop” Curry, did when Walker was younger.
“My grandfather did social service work for many years,” Walker said. “I was around it as a kid and as a teenager. Once he passed on, I felt the need to pick up the torch. This is something that is a family tradition. It’s been in our family for over 70 years.”
Walker implements his family roots in his program, but also incorporates his basketball career. The program emphasizes Walker’s “three D’s”, dedication, determination and discipline — a mantra that is reinforced daily.
“We go by the three Ds here – we feel that if the kids can apply the three Ds to their life, that it’s a remedy for success,” Walker said. “We believe in that. We go over it every day. Before we dismiss we say it as a group, and we mean it.”
Walker, who was a Big East Champion for Seton Hall in 1992-1993, applies his career in many facets to his day-to-day job at his foundation. Although many of his close friends and teammates moved up career wise, whether it be in the basketball world or the executive world, Walker does not regret his career path.
“I love what I’m doing here and there is nothing that would substitute for it,” Walker said.
Walker’s history on the court is ingrained into him, but despite that, he and his team focus on the off-court aspects of life.
“Our number one priority here is academics,” Walker said. “Most people think its athletics given my background, but we understand what’s going to get kids to the next point in their lives.”
Team Walker gives the 180 children under its control many opportunities to succeed inside and outside of the classroom. The program focuses heavily on STEM classes, which includes science, technology, engineering and math.
The group works often with the Liberty Science Center, which is located just a five-minute drive from the Learning Center, as well as with other academic organizations.
“We were one of seven agencies that was chosen to represent the State of N.J. in a NASA challenge,” Walker exclaimed. “It was wonderful because they sent us this laptop and the kids had a chance to do programs and projects with the astronauts and scientists of NASA.”
The Learning Center being near the Liberty Science Center and other groups in the heart of Jersey City has been highly beneficial for Walker and his team. Ground was broken on the complex only four years ago. It is the result of over a decade of hard work of Walker, his brother, and his team.
Team Walker also uses PS 22 School for athletics, as the Learning Center does not have a basketball court or other facilities.
“We believed in our mission, kept our eyes on the prize and kept chipping away,” Walker said. “It’s working. We have had a lot of success stories. Our graduation rate, in particular high school, is 98 percent.”
The graduation statistics, according to Walker, are higher than the Board of Education’s rates. The ultimate goal of Walker is to give the kids he and his team work with an edge going back to school or into the real world.
Another area that Walker has considered for his group is expansion. Even if it involves like-minded individuals and not Walker himself, he believes that Team Walker can become a state-wide program in the future.
“We have a strong model here that people could replicate throughout the state, but you have to find people who have the right minds and have the passion for it,” Walker said. “Not just somebody that is looking for a job, you have to have the right person to run it.”
Team Walker already has its foot in the door around New Jersey for the non-profit down the line. The team has partnered with America’s Grow-a-Row for the last six years to set up a farmer’s market.
Walker grouped up with Chip Paillex, America’s Grow-a-Row’s founder, after Walker was named a New Jersey Hero in 2011. The honor helped Walker grow his foundation and awareness for it.
“It was an honor and I think it was a great initiative that the Christie’s had,” Walker said.
Walker continues his foundation’s goals each year with the annual “Evening of Dreams.” The event each year is set up to raise funds and help for Team Walker. Outside of a small registration fee at the start of each year, Team Walker does not ask for anything else of the children or their families, so events like the Evening of Dreams become even more vital.
“We try and raise funds so we can make so many kids’ dreams come to fruition,” Walker said. “Making their dreams comes true is them being educated, going out into the world getting great jobs, and providing for their families. We’re just trying to give them an edge in any way that we can.”
The night, which is in its 16th year of operation, serves as a way to honor those who have contributed greatly to the program. The honorees at the 2018 event included Kevin Cummings, Michael Frungillo and Mike Reuter. Team Walker also gives out “Teacher of the Year” and “Student of the Year” awards.
Many special guests came this year, including ESPN’s Bob Ley, who graduated Seton Hall in 1976.
Walker and his family will always have New Jersey in their blood. Through his work with underprivileged children in his home state, Walker has found a sense of purpose in his life, but it is one that has always been inside of him.
In the end, for Walker, it is all about giving back to the community that gave so much to him.
Kevin Kopf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KMKTNF.