Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Alex Paucar, a Meadowcreek grad, is the executive director of Beat the Streets Georgia. Here, he coaches during a recent wrestling practice at Radloff Middle School.
Alex Paucar gets emotional talking about the Beat the Streets wrestling program.
The 1992 Meadowcreek graduate grew up in a single-parent family and knows firsthand the impact wrestling and a mentor can have on a young person's life.
"My heart is on the sleeve, man," Paucar said. "When it comes to talking about kids growing up in a situation where it's possibly a single parent, I grew up in that atmosphere and I know it was challenging for my mother to work six days a week and that I was staying out of trouble. Whenever I do things like this, my heart is on the sleeve. I grew up in this situation."
Paucar's personal experience with wrestling and growing up in a single-parent family is why Beat The Streets Georgia means so much to him. The 38-year-old is co-executive director of the program with his wife Amanda for the nonprofit organization
"I think through wrestling I learned some of the things I probably should have learned from my father," Paucar said. "I was fortunate to have coaches like Cliff Ramos and Preston Hughes. Those two men were influential in me getting out of high school."
Now Paucar is helping return the favor with the help of Team Georgia, a nonprofit state affiliate of USA Wrestling. The group was able to bring Beat The Streets to Georgia in November. The program was founded in the New York City metropolitan area about five years ago and now has 60 programs. It has expanded across the country and has programs in other large cities like Philadelphia, Chicago and Jacksonville.
Its purpose is to develop kids programs in at-risk communities and teach them life skills through the sport of wrestling.
Radloff Middle School in Norcross is the location of the initial Beat The Streets project in Georgia. The school's involvement with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America made it an ideal spot to start the program.
"It's an opportunity to expose kids, who otherwise wouldn't have an opportunity, to the sport," Paucar said. "We're definitely interested in exposing it to other schools. Our goal is to expose it to the at-risk schools that have been classified at-risk."
Team Georgia has identified more than 100 at-risk schools in Georgia like Radloff. To be an at-risk school, it has to be a Title I school that requires free or reduced-price lunches for 35 percent of the children in the school.
"I know what kind of impact wrestling can have," said Team Georgia chairman Anthony Flatt, who grew up in foster homes in Omaha, Neb. "Beat The Streets is near and dear to my heart because of my background."
Beat The Streets Georgia holds practices twice a week at Radloff. Frank Bennett, whose son Mac was a state placer at Collins Hill, is the head coach. Bennett was a successful youth wrestling coach in Fayette County in the early 2000s, leading his program to a state tournament title in 2004. He has 14 years of refereeing experience, so he knows the sport very well. Most importantly, he has a passion for helping kids.
Bennett works a full-time job in the mortgage business and twice a week he donates time to one-hour practices.
"These are at-risk kids. We are here to keep them off the streets, keep them off drugs," Bennett said. "If I can affect one kid's life, you have to start somewhere and this is it."
Practices usually draw 20 to 25 wrestlers, including about seven girls. Most of the wrestlers are from Radloff, but the program is open to any of the surrounding schools that feed into Meadowcreek High School.
Before each practice, Bennett goes through some of the basics of the sport like scoring and terminology.
"Most of these kids have never even seen a wrestling mat," he said.
To keep the kids motivated, he takes old trophies won by Mac as a kid and changes the nameplates on them and gives them away to encourage participation and excitement in the wrestling room.
Bennett is still in the early stages of teaching the kids wrestling. They've got the basic moves down, but it's a matter of putting it all together for a six-minute match. He plans to enter some of them in a beginner level tournament later this season.
"I want them to experience the full experience of going to a match, stepping on a scale, hearing their name over the speakers, putting the ankle band on and getting their hand raised," Bennett said. "I want them to have the full experience."
Most of the kids probably would never get that experience if it weren't for Beat The Streets Georgia. For many kids who attend Radloff, they go home after school and are unsupervised for hours before a parent comes home. Beat The Streets fills that void, offering wrestling as a way to build character and help prevent sedentary lifestyle in a state that has the second highest childhood obesity rate in the U.S.
"Do we expect any of these kids to be state champs? Absolutely not. But if it works out that way, then great," Paucar said. "But if they learn something and they learn respect, learn integrity, learn the hard work, those are the character things we want them to pick up."
The program has been aided by Team Georgia and other groups in the community to get it off the ground. Team Georgia purchased USA Wrestling memberships for all of the participants. That allows them to compete in any USA Wrestling event. More importantly, it provides them with secondary medical insurance in case they are hurt.
Beat The Streets also received help from wrestling mat manufacturer Resilite and the Atlanta Takedown Association to help purchase wrestling mats. Beat The Streets New York donated headgear, singlets and shoes, while Lawrenceville-based Takedown Sportswear donated wrestling shorts.
"It's in the early stages, but we're starting to get some support from other people," Flatt said.
Beat The Streets Georgia hopes to open two more programs in the next six to 12 months. Flatt is quick to point out this isn't just for Atlanta area schools, but also North Georgia and South Georgia schools where there's help from the community.
"The success or failure of this in our state is based on the community support," Flatt said. "Not only with financial backing, but volunteering."
That's where people like Paucar and Bennett come into play. They love the sport of wrestling and have seen the impact it has played in their lives that they want to share it with others.
"It's amazing how little you can do and make an impact in a kid's life. And how little it takes to make a difference," said a choked up Paucar. "It's amazing the small amount of time or the small amount of interest you give a kid can make a difference."