On most weekday afternoons, Cory Poole can be found on the basketball court at the Zonta Branch Boys & Girls Club, rebounding shots taken by kids half his age and half his size. Poole, 18, can also be found inside the club helping those same youngsters with their homework or leading them in another activity. "He's a very positive influence," says Michael Trujillo, senior director at the Zonta Branch on W Sligh Avenue across from the Lowry Park Zoo. Those are among the qualities that helped Poole, a senior at Chamberlain High School, win "Youth of the Year" for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay, the highest honor a club member can receive. The award comes with a $1,000 scholarship and the chance to compete for state, regional and national "Youth of the Year" honors and more scholarship money. Poole says his five years with his local Boys & Girls Clubs have helped keep him "out of trouble," something his two older brothers — who are in prison — have not been able to do. The soft-spoken young man carries a 3.2 grade-point average and, after graduation in June, is scheduled to leave for Marine Corps training at Parris Island, S.C. On a sunny afternoon this past week, Poole took time out from basketball to speak with City Times/North of Tampa Editor Richard Martin about his time in the club, and his bright future.
How did you first learn about the Boys & Girls Club?
The kids. I saw that that's where everybody in my neighborhood was going. They said that's where they go to do their homework, play basketball, play pool and lots of other types of activities. It was something I wanted to be involved in.
What has coming to the club meant to you?
It's had a big impact on my life. It gave me something to do after school besides hanging out in the streets. It mainly just keeps me out of trouble. It helps me have a place that I can go to without any harassment or negativity around me; just a positive atmosphere altogether.
What's a typical day like for you at the club?
When I first get here, I eat a snack, go outside with the kids, play around a little. If the younger kids are inside doing homework, I'll go in there and help them. If all the kids are playing outside, I'll be there with them.
When I first started going to the Boys & Girls Club, I was kind of shy. I didn't talk to many people because I guess I was afraid to interact with other people. I would stay distant. But now that you get around these people, and you see them every day, they begin to grow on you. So you begin to start talking to them and hanging out with them. I've grown up a lot here.
Your have two older brothers who are in prison. How difficult was it for you to steer clear of that path?
I saw what they did to get them into trouble. I had to make the choice if I wanted to do that also, or if I wanted to become something better. They kind of helped me, in a sense, by showing me what not to do. So I decided to walk the right path.
How and when did you decide to join the Marines?
I was in the ninth grade at Chamberlain. They have a Marine Corps JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps) program, and I was signed up in the program. I began to learn about what the Marines are and what they stand for. I'm now a senior leader in the program, so the new ninth-graders that come into JROTC, I lead them. I teach them what I was taught when I was younger in the program.
What about the Marines attracted you?
It was two things. I learned that it's a strong brotherhood. They have each other's back no matter what. You can depend on them. I like that fact, because growing up, I really didn't trust many people. They also say once you become a Marine, you're always a Marine. Also, I learned that they're the most elite force in the military. And just the thought of becoming part of the world's best at every aspect in the military is a great chance for me to become someone.
What does your mom think about your future plans? Is she worried about you joining the military?
She was kind of nervous. But I kind of stood up to her about it, and said "Mom, this is something I really want. I'm going to do it." She had no choice but to accept the fact.
What are your long-term goals?
If I don't retire as a Marine, I'd like to get out and be a fireman.
You've grown in this program. You're a mentor to a lot of these kids. What's the message you want to send to them?
Become the best you can be. Whatever you want to be, whatever you want to grow up and become, just become the best at it. Just work hard at it. Hard work pays off.
Richard Martin can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3322. Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.