Lemuel “Life” LaRoche is attempting to clear the board of the Athens social barricade one chess piece at a time.
“To be honest with you, when I was student at UGA,” LaRoche said, “I saw that it was the UGA community and then there was the Athens community … Athens [isn’t] really trying to address the problem, that’s what I thought in my mind … we got all these non-profits, we got all these people that beget the community, but we’re still in the state that it’s in — nobody is really trying to address the state — Athens is one of the poorest cities.”
LaRoche, a 2003 UGA School of Social Work graduate and founder of non-profit Chess and Community, created the local non-profit in the fall of 2012, to further critical thinking skills of kids who came from troubled backgrounds.
“We have been doing this in Athens since about 2006,” he said. ‘We started with a lot of juveniles. Every time I met with a young kid I was supposed to work with, I would teach that person how to play chess. As time built up, these kids were just like, ‘Whoa,’ … these kids would play chess, and I would see how they saw life and how they did things.”
Many of LaRoche’s early mentees became the “Classic City Knights,” a group of 12 kids whom LaRoche picks each year, who receive an in-depth and comprehensive mentoring. Projects for the Knights include essay writing, a weekly trip to the Community Garden to learn self-sufficiency, playing chess at retirement homes, a book club in the summer with two mandatory readings, a kayaking trip, a trip to Washington D.C., and a mentee system for each of the Knights, whom each pick a mentee to teach the game.
These first few juveniles became the catalyst to LaRoche’s work.
“I’d get them together — five, six, seven kids,” he said. “We’d just come play chess. After a while we’d put on little chess tournaments … the people were just astounded, they were like, ‘these kids are on probation and they play chess.’”
LaRoche sees chess as a game of intellect that commands respect from peers, and challenges them to think critically.
“It was more of a therapeutic strategy to deal with their impulsiveness,” LaRoche said. “These kids would call me up saying, ‘I’m stressed man, let’s play chess.’”
After LaRoche’s first Chess and Community Conference in January 2013, he began to see a change in response from the Athens community.
And it’s a change that LaRoche needed to see, since the conference was originally planned as a final farewell to the city. For his first conference, LaRoche reported having 46 kids signing up for the tournament.
“But when we did the first conference we got so much feedback,” he said. “And that’s when I said, ‘Let’s focus on Athens.’”
At the 2014 conference LaRoche saw an influx of youth involvement with close to 100 children enrolled, and close to 300 parents and volunteers showing up to support.
Inspired by LaRoche, local poet Ashley Black, aka Bellah Sparxxx, came to the most recent C&C meeting to act as a volunteer for the children.
“I really love what he’s doing with the community,” Black said. “I think it’s unlike what anyone else here is doing.”
Like LaRoche, Black sees the benefit of teaching critical thinking through chess.
“Chess is not just a game,” she said. “I feel like it’s the micro of the macro, as far as making choices in life, it’s the same as chess moves — you have to think five moves ahead.”
Black originally heard about C&C through a mutual friend Montu Miller, and she’d heard a lot of buzz in the poetry scene about LaRoche’s work. After speaking with Miller, she said, “I’ll absolutely be there.”
By word of mouth, Clayte Morgan, a grandmother of Renee Wimbrush, whom she brought to the CC event, started bring her granddaughter three months ago after seeing LaRoche speak at the Lyndon House Arts Center on Martin Luther King Day.
“It’s going to open up different paths for her, she just doesn’t know it yet,” Morgan said, in reference to her granddaughter. “I’ve wanted her to play for a long time, it’s good for critical thinking.”
Similarly, LaRoche’s longtime friend Montu Miller, whom he met in 1999, has also witnessed LaRoche’s change over the years — and now Miller brings his two sons to play chess.
“Anything he’s a apart of I’m usually supporting,” Miller said. “Anything I’m doing he’s with me. We just support each other. At the same time, I’m helping my kids play chess and that’s definitely a plus.”
Miller sees chess as a medium to teach his kids about life, and a way to not just be a pawn in someone else’s game.
“It’s teaching them patience,” he said. “Everyone has a certain way they move, some people move this way some people move another … it’s kind of teaching them the art of war through the art of play,”
Over the years, Miller has seen the progression of LaRoche’s work.
“He’s went from being a developing leader to just being a solid leader,” he said. “When we first linked up, we were both kind of learning ourselves, not just learning to be leaders, but about the community as well.”
Before LaRcohe’s collegiate career and eventual social work, he was raised on chess.
“Chess was something when I was young, the elders would teach us,” he said. “They’d tell us, ‘Think before you do things, think before you move.’”
Now it’s about sharing that same message with the Athens community.
“The whole aspect is you get a chance to really shape young minds,” he said, “and really get them to understand life and to see life from a different point of view.”
Aside from the Chess and Community event at the Athens- Clarke County Library, LaRoche holds a “Chess and Pizza” event at Little Italy the third Friday of every month. And he wants to farm from the University student crop to get more student volunteers. As time has progressed, he’s seen more parents and local businesses lend a hand.
“The big thing is, I can say we’re doing all this without funding, no grants, no anything,” LaRoche said. “It’s all been local support, local businesses and regular people who believe in our vision and what we’re doing, and they’re helping sponsor.”
As a game of life, LaRoche sees chess as a way break barriers and to bring the Athens community together.
“This is a place where Saleem, a little Arab kid can play with Shaun,” he said. “Where you put two kids from two totally different demographics who usually don’t meet … it isn’t about what color you are, it’s not about what religion you are, your politics, your culture — you put all that on the back burner and bring your strategy.”