January 9, 2019

This article is featured in a multi-part series presented by Coaching Management, which documents sport coaches who serve as role models in their communities, both on and off the field. If you know of a deserving coach who should be recognized, send an email including the coach’s name, sport, and school or team name to: coachingmgt@momentummedia.com.

At West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey, Akbar Cook is more than just a boys’ basketball coach with a desire to be a top contender on the court. He is also doing everything in his power to reverse the serious issues affecting the wellbeing of not only his student-athletes, but the entire student body.

According to Cook, roughly two to three West Side students are killed each summer due to gun violence, something that has “really affected” him in his five years at the school. “I needed to find a way to save them,” he tells The Washington Post. So, Cook began the Lights On program, which provides endangered youth a safe place to gather in the evening hours and keeps them away from trouble.

But the 42-year-old coach didn’t stop there. Now in his first year doubling as principal, he has discovered the root of why 85 percent of West Side’s 750 students qualify as “chronically absent.” “These are kids, good kids who want to learn, that are missing three to five days a month because they were being bullied because they were dirty,” Cook tells CNN. “I even changed the school uniform to darker colors so they could go more days without cleaning them, but even with that, students were struggling to have them look clean enough to attend.”

About two years ago, the bullying began to pick up on social media, and Cook knew the culture within the school’s student body needed to change. “They were posting on Snapchat and Instagram about how their classmates were coming to school with dirty clothes on, like posting a pic of a student’s dirty collar,” Cook tells The Washington Post. “I knew we had to do something.”

Another instance that stuck in Cook’s memory involved a 16-year-old student, who didn’t want school security to inspect her bag one Monday morning. “The police later told me she had dirty clothes in her bag because she was homeless and didn’t want anyone to know,” Cook tells CNN. “She was fighting her pride.”

Cook then took action and applied for a $20,000 grant from a the PSEG Foundation, which is associated with PSE&G, one of Newark’s main utility companies. The grant was awarded to West Side, and ever since, that money has gone a long way. Under Cook’s direction, an old football locker room was transformed into a free school laundromat that features five washers, five dryers, and an endless supply of donated detergents.

“Confidence is a big thing with everyone. To feel that you smell good, look good, I think that goes a long way,” Cook tells CBS2. “You can get up and go to the teacher’s board in front and know no one is going to make fun of stains on your pants… I think this is definitely going to lead to a new generation of empathy.”

This school year, West Side introduced the “Wash and Learn” after school program, which his held from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The laundromat is staffed by an adult at all times. “Some kids don’t know how to do laundry. We have to teach some of them how to do that,” Cook tells The Washington Post. “Hopefully, people can see this as an example of what to do.”

So far, Cook thinks the response has been overwhelmingly positive. His actions were even recognized by The Ellen Degeneres Show with a donation to keep the Wash and Learn program going. “My friends at Cheerios are so inspired by what you’re doing to support students, they want you to continue helping people,” Degeneres says on her show, “so they’re going to give West Side High School a check for $50,000.”

Since Cook’s appearance on the show over three months ago, more and more donations of detergents have arrived at West Side’s door. Now, the high school has three storage closets filled with laundry supplies, thanks to donors from across New Jersey and the entire country. “We take things for granted that are easy for us. [Cook] doesn’t,” Ellen Lambert, former PSEG Foundation President, tells NJ.com. “You want everyone to succeed, especially young people. He finds those places where success doesn’t happen and he figures out why and he goes after it.”

“We are trying to teach them to navigate their pride. My kids are fighters -- they just need good ways to fight for themselves, and then take pride in what they can do,” Cook tells CNN.

“We say that from the time you enter my doors until you’re gainfully employed, I’m going to follow you because I really care,” Cook explains to News12 NJ. “I want them to know I’m there. I’m never leaving their side.”

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