Written by S-L Student and Graduate Assistant Courtney Woodman
This semester marks the second year of Service-Learning at Northeastern’s involvement with Round Table Inc., a long-time community partner of Northeastern University’s Center of Community Service. Founded and run by George Benner and situated in the heart of the Mary Ellen McCormack housing project, Round Table is a hallmark in the South Boston community.
Round Table aims to provide a positive, creative outlet that prevents kids from turning to the streets. Through youth programs focused on creating opportunities in the arts, athletics and social justice, “the goal is to stay sober and not get caught up in the hype of being an entrepreneur and dealing with drugs or alcohol and trying to remain sober in this community” says Benner.
Round Table puts ideas into action—practicing hospitality by inviting the community to come together. Emphasizing the three A’s of Round Table: abstinence, artists, and athletes, under George’s lead, the organization creates cost-effective programs that advocate for tangible social change.
As Benner states, “we’re creating a vibrant community here [in South Boston], where children, parents and families interact and engage in social justice activities. We’re feeding people and we’re creating jobs. We don’t put locks on doors, we’re unlocking doors. I’m just trying to help in the community.”
Benner, an alumnus of Northeastern himself, is the heart and soul of Round Table. He wears not one, but many hats; acting as a mentor, coach, and support system for the kids and community members who step through the doors of the community center.
This fall, Round Table began working with a new cohort of Northeastern Service-Learning students in collaboration with courses whose focuses range from writing, to food justice, to media advocacy.
Upon visiting the community center, the first thing you notice is all of the artwork, some by students and others by volunteers, hung on the vibrant red and black walls— a tribute to Benner’s alma mater and a reminder to the kids about the importance of education.
Even in the face of adversity, Round Table makes the most of the space available to them. “There have been a lot of difficult times, like I say we’re interacting within the community. Just working in this basement alone is really challenging, whether we’ve had to renovate it, do different things down here: paint it, clean it,” Benner says of the community center’s physical space. In touring the facility, Benner noted the difficult times they’ve faced with leaks and the occasional uninvited critter.
Not only does Round Table’s community center have a computer lab giving kids access to learn valuable technological skills, but also tables for homework or fine -tuning their artistic talents. Benner and the two enthusiastic kids showing us around, Jeffrey and Ray, were quick to point out the open area in the center’s recreational space where the heavy bag typically resides. It is there that dozens of kids have learned ago box, a sport that teaches discipline and encourages the kids to get up and get active. The facility also features a kitchen where George and the children work hard to keep the feeding program running, learning how to use nutritious foods they grow in the garden to prepare and cook healthy, nourishing meals.
Round Table prides themselves on 3 primary programs: the community feeding program, Learn2Earn sneakerheads, and South Boston Basketball Academy.
Community Feeding Program
The feeding program provides a multitude of opportunities to not only the kids who visit the Round Table community center, but also to the rest of the Mary Ellen McCormack community. From growing vegetables to harvesting food and creating jobs, the program that began Round Table is a staple in the housing project.
As the first of Round Table’s programs, George recalls the moment that the organization was born. “One evening when I was coming home from shopping with my son and a bunch of little kids [saw] in our grocery bags a bunch of food, and we decided to let them pic away at whatever they wanted. Next thing you know, my son [thought] why don’t we start a little feeding program, and from then on we’ve been feeding people, since 2008.”
Recently, a fellow Service-Learning student participating in a direct service project with the organization, estimated Round Table has served over 60,000 meals to members of the community. Be it breakfast, lunch or dinner, Round Table strives to continuing serving meals to hungry members of the community.
Round Table’s Learn2Earn Sneakerheads program is another signature initiative in the community.The idea for this program was born when founder George Benner noticed one of the community center’s star basketball players playing in a pair of Vans— skating shoes. Not only did Round Table provide him with a new pair of basketball shoes, George saw this as an important teaching moment.
When the rest of the team saw their teammate’s new shoes, soon they all wanted a pair of their own, which Round Table was able to provide them. From this came Learn2Earn, offering learners the opportunity to engage in valuable business, financial & entrepreneurial skills.
Fundraising for their sneakers by selling fruit snacks, the children in the community earn the money to pay for their new sneakers on their own. The program grew to teach kids the importance of working for the wants in life and the value of a dollar, beginning with a few local sneakerheads on the basketball team who wanted their own pair of the latest Kyrie Irving sneakers.
South Boston Basketball Academy
The South Boston Basketball Academy brings together children from 3 different developments: the Mary Ellen McCormack housing development, the Old Colony housing development, and the West Broadway housing development. Round Table encourages kids from all across the community to participate, “we’re all trying to interact and get along, to get to know your neighbor, and it’s going pretty good, it’s been pretty successful,” says Benner.
Round Table’s founder, George Benner, has been coaching kids in the community for the past 20 years. “I coach basketball and I coach baseball. I’ve coached a 5th and 6th grade basketball team for the last 8 years, St. Vincent’s Basketball.” While St. Vincent’s parish has dissolved, the basketball program remains strong. Practicing at the Condon Community Center, St. Vincent’s Basketball and South Boston Basketball Academy continue to grow and “[are] actually getting stronger,” says coach Benner. “I’ve coached basketball for the last 20 years, and now as you’ve just seen, we have a high demand for 4th graders. I’m taking twelve 4th graders up to Maine for a tournament, Hoops for Troops.”
While Round Table works to support the community, lasting change is truly a community effort, and relies on support from other members of the community to continue advancing their mission.
Benner calls their partnership with Northeastern “the bright spot of our lives.” Whether it be partnering with Service-Learning courses, participating in service day or as a popular excursion destination for their regular visits to campus on field trips. Most often, George is bringing the kids along for campus tours or to basketball games at Matthews Arena to watch the action live.
However, Northeastern isn’t the only notable supporter of Round Table. Ken Casey of the Dropkick Murphys sits among the tenured supporters of the organization through his charitable organization, The Claddagh Fund, which supports community-based non-profits focused on children and programs that support alcohol and drug rehabilitation.
Facing the challenge of keeping the Round Table van up to date and running has been made just that little bit easier with Casey’s generous support. The Dropkick Murphys graciously allow Round Table use of their van to ensure the kids have a way to get to all their games, practices, and fields trips. “That van has over 300,000 miles on it. The van’s taken more kids to games, and practices and field trips…it’s even gone cross country,” Benner says, speaking to just how much they rely on the van as their means of transportation.
What’s Next for Round Table Trusted Servants?
When asked what he most wants people to know about Round Table, George says, “I’d want them to know that we exist, that the Round Table is working in the community of South Boston. We’re engaging throughout the city, throughout the state. Round Table Trusted Servants, we’re here helping people.”
“Gratitude,” that was George’s response when asked to describe Round Table in one word, “I’m grateful to be a part of this. I learn more from these little kids than I think I teach them, I learn more from the community than I think I’m teaching. I don’t know who’s helping who around here. It’s a great opportunity to interact with people, create a lot of different ideas, engage in dialogue, there’s a lot going on.”
It takes more than one man to change the world. While Benner knows he can’t change the world alone, he continues working hard to ensure the next generation of citizens are equipped to carry on his legacy and make a lasting impact on the community.