Public Housing Authority Breaks Barriers With Non-Traditional Sports And Fine Arts Academy In Richmond

By Off The BASN Sports Wire
Updated: August 3, 2007

 Latifah Neblett-Burrell (left) and Dive Buddy

Latifah Neblett-Burrell (left) and Dive Buddy

RICHMOND, Va. — Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s (RRHA) unique youth development program is allowing youth living in public housing communities to travel to foreign countries, obtain record academic scholarships and excel in sports which are sometimes deemed uncommon for youths living in those communities.

The Youth Sports and Fine Arts Academy is breaking barriers, correcting stereotypes and establishing a solid record of achievement with its groundbreaking program.

The Academy, serving 200 young people from the ages of eight years old to young adulthood, offers non-traditional sports and cultural activities as a positive outlet for children living in Richmond’s public housing communities.

The Academy is a comprehensive, prevention initiative that uses sports and programs such as golf, cycling, tennis, tae kwon do, boxing, scuba diving, college scholarships and a reading club as a catalyst for engaging youth in organized, structured programs aimed at helping them reach their full potential.

Of the variety of athletic and fine arts programs provided by the Academy, it is the scuba diving program which is representative of the unique approach the housing agency has developed, to provide positive educational and life-skills experiences for its youth.

Students involved in the program have gone on to achieve college and advanced degrees, gain employment in Fortune 100 Companies, win national scholarship awards such as The Gates (Bill and Melinda) Millennium Scholarship to attend medical school and more.

An example of the uniqueness and impact of this program is most evident in Latifah Neblett-Burrell. Two years prior to this program, Latifah did not even know how to swim. As a result of this program, along with her skill, intellect and drive, the 13-year-old, middle school student is now traveling around the world with the sport of scuba diving.

Latifah recently flew to the Caribbean Island of Curacao to participate in an international youth diving summit where she enjoyed her first airplane ride and accomplished her first ocean water dive, along with experiencing the culture of the island. She was selected to represent Richmond at the Youth Summit hosted by the Tennessee Association of Black Scuba Divers June 22 through June 26 because of her academic achievement and leadership skills.

Now, “firsts” aren’t so scary for the energetic, photogenic young lady. Neblett-Burrell is now underway with advanced scuba diving training and feels “a sense of maturity” from being in the program.

The RRHA Youth Scuba Diving Program is an outgrowth of a partnership with the Black Dolphin Divers (BDD) of Richmond, Virginia and the Authority’s Youth Sports and Fine Arts program.

Clifton Hicks, President of the Black Dolphin Divers of Richmond, has been an integral part in the development of the program. Hicks, along with other volunteer scuba diving instructors and members of the club give of their time to teach these young people the application and techniques of scuba diving.

Hicks said, “The Black Dolphin Divers of Richmond, Virginia are very pleased to sponsor these youths. Our sponsorship includes financial support; exposure to the variety of educational, recreational and employment opportunities scuba offers and long term mentoring.”

“Our national and local club philosophy places special emphasis on empowering and building the quality of life of the youths in our communities. Our goal is to provide positive leadership to our youths. Our expectation is that in turn our youths will mentor and provide positive leadership in the community.”

The mission of BDD is to increase awareness of the sport in the African-American Community, to aid its members in developing their diving skills, to sponsor youth aquatic and dive programs and to sponsor trips and educational experiences.

BDD is an affiliate of The National Association of Black Scuba Divers, Inc. (NABS). Founded in January 1991, NABS has been a catalyst for promoting scuba diving throughout the African-American community.

Their mission is to create a network of people and resources that provide educational experiences which enhance and promote an appreciation of diving and an awareness of the aquatic environment.

Because of BDD’s commitment to teaching the sport of scuba diving, there are now four students, ages 13 to 16, currently participating in the program. During their training and certification phase they met twice a week — the first day for textbook instruction and the second day for water skills.

The youths are now open-water Professional Association of Dive Instructors (PADI)-certified scuba divers. Additionally, they have continued their aquatic skills training and are now certified life guards.

Scuba diving is not always synonymous with African-Americans, but these young people are proving otherwise. This program is changing the perceptions about children living in Richmond’s public housing communities and African-Americans excelling in the sport of scuba diving.

Valena Dixon, Director of Communications for RRHA comments, “This program is history-making on so many levels. We believe we are the first housing authority in the nation to develop such a unique program by embracing scuba diving as a tool for developing future leaders in our public housing communities.”

“We are teaching our young people athletic skills which in turn teach life skills such as self-confidence, self-fulfillment and discipline. We are literally shaping the lives of youth and providing opportunities for success in a very non-traditional way.”

NOTE: For more information on the Youth Sports and Fine Arts Academy, contact Valena Dixon at 804-780-4167 or visit . For more information on the Black Dolphin Divers of Richmond, visit . For more information on The National Association of Black Scuba Divers, visit