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'Good for your soul': Basketball coach uses comedy to help families heal

Fatherhood, Christianity and caring people helped steer Colter Simmonds away from a life of violence. He's been showing his gratitude ever since as a youth mentor.

Colter Simmonds organizing Laugh Out Violence fundraiser for non-profit youth program

Fatherhood, Christianity and caring people helped steer Colter Simmonds away from a life of violence. He's been showing his gratitude ever since as a youth mentor. 3:58

When Colter Simmonds, 41, walks into Dartmouth High, it's not long before teens come up with smiles of surprise and warm hugs. It's the same reception at other schools around Halifax.

For the last 20 years, the North Preston, N.S., native — nicknamed C.C., short for Coach Colter — has been earning respect and receiving affection as a mentor to hundreds of children in both sports and school.

His coaching in basketball and life is aimed at keeping them off the streets where beefs are sometimes settled with guns, leaving lives violently cut short, and others locked up.

What those teens might not realize is those realities were "close calls" Simmonds himself escaped.

"For me to be here, I think I'm an example that you can change and do better," he said during an interview last week at the North Preston Community Centre.

Simmonds when he was about 19 or 20, dressed for an evening at a nightclub. (Submitted by Colter Simmonds)

'It takes your mind off things'

In recent days he's been visiting with school principals, church pastors and bereaved parents — his special guests at Laugh Out Violence, the fundraiser he's organized Feb. 22 at Casino Nova Scotia, during African Heritage Month.

Simmonds's goal is a sold-out evening to raise funds for We Will Win Youth Association, the non-profit organization he started in 1999 to help children pursue their dreams on the court, in the classroom or in the community.

Comedy, he said, is "healing, it takes your mind off things, it's good for your soul."

Leaders in the black community carry an added emotional burden, he said. They may know both sides in a dispute that's turned deadly — a situation he's found himself in after mentoring so many kids. 

Karen Hudson, principal at Auburn Drive High School, said that's almost inevitable in a small province with many large, extended African-Nova Scotian families.

Karen Hudson is the principal of Auburn Drive High School in Cole Harbour, N.S. (Robert Short/CBC)

"You've got to show compassion and show them that you care. And as a black female, you never take off that skin, so you have to let them know that some of the individuals that are within the community, they may affect you too," she said.

The night of comedy is no joke for Simmonds. He's spent nearly $8,000 of his own money to book the room and the headliners — Mark Walker, from Truro, N.S., and Cedric Newman and Chris Quigley, both from the Toronto area. 

The event has no corporate sponsors, although the casino is offering the showroom at a reduced rate.

We Will Win Youth Association has taken kids to tournaments around North America, and helped develop NCAA wing Daneesha Provo and NBA G-League guard Lindell Wigginton.

Simmonds is shown coaching a We Will Win Youth Association practice in 2017 at Saint Mary's University in Halifax. (Steve Berry/CBC)

Simmonds spent his teens in Toronto where he was an all-star point guard with enough talent to make it to the NCAA or Canadian university basketball, he said. But some "influences" tried to pull him in the other direction, and ultimately his attitude blocked him from reaching college ball.

Even when he didn't believe in himself, his supporters never gave up on him, telling him, "You can do better."

That message eventually sunk in, and stayed with him as he became a father at 21, a baptized Christian, a college graduate and now a youth programming co-ordinator.

His belief that "the more you do for others, the more God is going to bless you" guides him as he pays it forward with the fundraiser. 

Dyrekia Provo rehearses her original song at the music studio at the North Preston Community Centre. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Simmonds estimates he's known 40 people who've died violently or gone to prison because of it. It drives him to keep connecting with young people, especially those at risk, to show them that turning away from violence creates another path.

"You do what you're exposed to," he said. "If you're exposed to negativity, then that's what you're going to get. If you're exposed to positivity, then there's the likelihood of living a positive life."

He hopes bereaved parents of children he's mentored will attend the evening of entertainment to know "their child hasn't been forgotten."

The first Laugh Out Violence fundraiser was held in 2017, after Halifax marked 12 homicides in 2016, including three shooting deaths in seven days.

Tyler Richards, 29, was among the young men killed. It was a terrible blow to Simmonds.

Simmonds, left, and Tyler Richards, rear, in 2013 when Simmonds was the interim head coach of the Halifax Rainmen. (Submitted by Colter Simmonds)

Richards first reached out to Simmonds in 2003 to play for a team he was coaching in Toronto. Their paths crossed again the following year when Richards was trying out for Canada's basketball team, and also in 2013 when Richards made the NBL's Halifax Rainmen, briefly coached by Simmonds.

"Gone too soon, and to know he was somebody that was really wanting to do better in life," Simmonds said.

R&B, gospel and hip hop musicians, along with a dancer — all who have been mentored by Simmonds — will take the stage at the fundraiser. He said this opportunity fulfils a promise to them.

Spoken-word artist Michael Earle, known as MAJE, will perform his song Smile, which features positive lyrics and a music video that shows black fathers and their daughters.

Earle didn't know Simmonds's back story until he shared it last week, but "I always knew he had a big heart."

Simmonds said the birth of his son, Tyrell, set him on a new path. (Submitted by Colter Simmonds.)

"Like C.C. said, his kid is the reason he changed, so being in your kid's life can do miracles for you as a human."

Simmonds's son, Tyrell, was born when he was barely out of his teens. 

"I want him to have me there with him all the way through his life until he's old enough to have his own kids and understand that when I go, it's because it's time, I'm old."

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About the Author

Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at elizabeth.chiu@cbc.ca.