Amidst numerous issues of poverty and education deficits in Athens-Clarke County, there are few nonprofits working to stem those problems as innovative and effective as Chess and Community, led by social worker and spoken word poet Lemuel “Life” Laroche.
A graduate from the UGA School of Social Work in 2003, Life is an important figure in the Athens community. Formed in 2012, Chess and Community teaches at-risk kids the rules and intricacies of chess and offers them mentoring and opportunities to meet community leaders in both Athens and Atlanta. With the motto “Think before you move” as a central focus, Laroche asserts that the game teaches vital skills of self-control and planning that can prove influential on young, impulsive kids.
“I worked with a lot of kids in the juvenile system after I graduated. I formed a group with some other grads called Impact Counseling. We would go in and try to talk to these kids. After a while, I started incorporating chess into it, because chess deals with critical thinking, and a lot of these kids were just impulsive. ‘I’m angry, I’ll just react.’ Chess teaches you to step back and think, then move. I started to do chess tournaments at the juvenile systems, and the judges were all very impressed,” Laroche said.
Laroche began organizing chess tournaments throughout Athens and Covington before finally deciding to start a full-fledged nonprofit organization in the fall of 2012. He garnered a foothold in the Athens community and began expanding his efforts, taking kids to chess tournaments in Washington D.C. and making trips to various places of interest around Georgia, such as Stone Mountain.
In 2013, Laroche had gained enough support to put on the First Annual Chess and Community Conference, an event featuring a youth chess team tournament and several community speakers. The conference garnered a sizable turnout and found a highly positive reaction from the community, and was repeated again last Saturday in Mehler Hall of the Georgia Center.
Besides the conference, Chess and Community hosts open chess play in the Athens-Clarke County library every Monday from four to five p.m. The third Friday of every month, the organization also hosts Chess and Pizza at Little Italy from five to seven p.m., an event for youth to come and enjoy casual chess play, food and discussion.
In “Life the Griot,” a recent documentary produced by Watkinsville filmmaker Matt DeGennaro, the issues with the prison system are explored through the eyes of Laroche, who offers an alternative route for at-risk youth.
“We wanted to focus on the prison system, make this about the for-profit prison system and its issues and how dangerous it is for society,” Laroche said. “But we also didn’t want to make this just about problems and problems and problems. We wanted to look at solutions, to make this film inspiring for the next generation, and maybe even this one.”
The documentary was shown on Jan. 12 at Ciné to a packed, enthusiastic crowd. DeGennaro plans to next take the film to various festivals to drum up more support for Chess and Community. Plans are in the work to show the film at UGA and to make the film available on the Internet.
Amongst all the big news however, Laroche remains focused on his original goal: using chess to empower the youth. By learning a highly strategic game, the kids gain both confidence in their intelligence and proof of their ability to carefully consider their actions.
“People look at these kids and say that they can’t think, that they need to be taken out of the community or they’ll turn violent,” Laroche said. “But now I can say, ‘Hey, why don’t you play him in a game of chess? Then see how he thinks.’”