Growing up in the big apple, Lemuel LaRoche, who is now a social worker and goes by "Life the Griot," would always come across people that wanted to teach him the game of chess, one of the world’s oldest board games still played every day on the streets of New York City. The game teaches players a philosophy that lays a solid foundation for life, and focuses on getting kids to think before they move.
Around the kids, LaRoche is totally in his element, greeting each youngster by name or stopping to speak with those who may be coming out to play for the first time. Chess and Community, the nonprofit organization LaRoche started after college, holds several events each month that are open to the public both young and old.
CC meets at the Athens-Clarke County Library each Monday for open chess play, and on the third Friday of each month, for chess and pizza at Little Italy Pizzeria in downtown Athens.
“Chess is a vehicle that could be used to understand life,” says LaRoche. “So growing up chess was always one of those tools were elders would set down and in particular it was mister Abraham, who would always sit us down and just teach us [how to play] chess”
LaRoche moved to Atlanta, and then to Macon, Georgia where he dropped out of from Southwest High School because of what he calls a lack of connection with the school system, but He did eventually go back and graduate from Southwest High School.
LaRoche began his undergraduate college career at Gordon College in Barnesville, Georgia, where after a brief stint as a computer science major, he found sociology. Despite the different career opportunities, he decided to go for what he liked and enjoyed in studying, sociology. He transferred to the University of Georgia’s social work department in 1999.
“I began to learn about the Athens community, the different Athens that we have. We have a greater Athens, then we have the poverty Athens, then we have the music Athens, the UGA Athens, Oconee Athens,” LaRoche said. He started to see the parallels and the difference in the lives of the people in all of Athens.
He was able to get into this community and learn about the challenges, especially with extreme poverty through social work and he thought he had one choice.
“My father always used to say you’re either part of the problem or you’re part of the solution,” says LaRoche. “At that point I needed to be part of the solution.”
He started to work with kids and become active where he saw how a lot of people in the Athens community were affected by extreme poverty.
He began to incorporate chess into his social work with juveniles at the Athens-Clarke county department of juvenile justice. He showed one kid how to play chess, then another then two three.
He put on small chess tournaments at the Department of Juvenile Justice for those kids in juvenile detention, and this served as a way to show the judge and it was a way of showing the community, of showing the probation officers and most importantly the kids that they had the ability to think critically through the chess board.
“If you can think through on this chessboard then surely you can think through a lot of the issues that life has to throw at you,” says LaRoche.
All of this led to him starting Chess and the Community and its diverse atmosphere where kids get an opportunity meet someone, talk with someone and engage with someone it can change their whole outlook on themselves as well as their community.
Parents and volunteers often play games with the kids.
“I really appreciate the opportunity to sit down and play a game with the kids or people you don’t normally run into everyday,” volunteer Christine Rodick said.
LaRoche started pizza and chess and that grew into open chess play. Every January, CC puts on a conference that’s opened up to all the high school and all the middle schools with the idea to meet once a year to compete and have fun.
All the kids from across Athens, get a chance to connect with each other and the community.
“He [LaRoche] can really inspires the kids, and he redally cares,” says volunteer Linzi Machini, “working with him, he just has a sixth sense about him. Some days we’ll talk and he’ll ask Linzi how are you doing, and he’ll say again how are you doing, and he’ll eventually get me to divulge.”
“So it interesting working with him, not only does he care about the kids so much, but he cares about the volunteers, the board members and everyone,” Machini said.
LaRoche wants to change the Athens community, by focusing on getting kids to think five, six moves ahead when it come to college and life.
“The reality is that poverty in this town is real,” says LaRoche, “and from poverty it breeds desperation, and we can’t expect things to happen overnight, but teaching them the principles the values of thinking through every situation you encounter rather than react, respond, don’t react. That is what we drive and we’ve started to see the difference.”