Forty years ago, dozens of underprivileged youth from Miami’s Coconut Grove neighborhood met a man who changed their lives.
When they needed money for membership into the local boys’ club, he paid their way. When they needed a ride to their football, basketball or baseball games and practice sessions, he drove or arranged for rides. When they needed comfort to soothe bruised knees or other hurts, he hugged them. If they needed a stern hand, he gave that to them, too.
“I raised them just like I raised my three sons,” recalled Sylvester Collier, now 77, a retired city of Miami Parks and Recreation Department worker.
Today, the boys and girls Collier nurtured decades ago at what is now the Southwest Boys and Girls Club at 2805 SW 32nd Ave. say they carried what they learned under Collier’s mentoring into their adult lives. Some became teachers, police officers, professional athletes, city and county workers and members of the military.
On June 24-25 — less than a week after Father’s Day — about 30 of the former boys and girls club kids will travel to Collier’s hometown of Ocilla, Georgia, where he now lives, to thank him. There’s no exact count, but estimates are that Collier influenced or helped 200 to 300 youth between the late 1960s and into the 1980s.
“He was a father figure to kids for whom their parents didn’t show up. He was there,” said Carl Springer, 61, a boys’ club member who later coached Optimist football at the club.
He will be among the South Florida residents traveling nearly 500 miles to attend the reunion with their mentor. Others are coming from as far away as Oregon, the Carolinas and elsewhere in Georgia.
Ronald “Billy” McGahee, 55, of Miramar, explained why Collier was so important in his life: “When you got hurt, he held you. He told you everything is going to be all right. That’s why everybody took to Mr. Collier.”
McGahee said his own father had two jobs and his mother was a homemaker raising 10 children. Neither had much time to take their kids to the park, but Collier made time.
“I wanted my father to be like Mr. Collier,” said McGahee, a retired physical education teacher for Miami Dade Public Schools. He was good friends with Collier’s sons and frequently ate and slept over at their home.
“He always told you the rights and the wrongs and the dos and the don’ts. He didn’t scream and yell. He spoke to you with respect,” McGahee recalled.
Many of the children were products of single-family homes or had two-parent families where mom and dad both worked and had little time to attend athletic events with their children.
Collier had moved to Miami in 1958 shortly after graduating from high school in his Georgia hometown. He and his first wife, the late Alberta Wilcox Collier, settled into the West Grove neighborhood of predominantly black working class families. Collier worked as a heavy equipment operator for the city of Miami’s Parks and Recreation Department and was heavily involved in community activities.
When he first started attending boys club events in the late 1960s with sons Tracy, Gregory and Ricky, he saw that there were few adults other than coaches accompanying the children.
“That’s why I stepped in to be the father to so many,” said Collier.
Collier said the Coconut Grove youth needed an adult presence at their events, especially baseball games. Back then, opposing teams and their fans often yelled racial slurs at the black players or threatened to start fights because the Coconut Grove children were winning. Collier put a stop to that, his towering 6-foot, 1-inch frame a deterrent to rowdiness.
He was their champion. When he found out a staff member was using the “n-word” around the children, he made a late-night phone call to the person’s boss. “It didn’t happen any more,” Collier recalled. He was working hard to build the children’s self-esteem. He had little patience for those trying to tear them down.
“Everywhere they went, for baseball, basketball and football, I was there,” Collier said. He didn’t go empty-handed. He, his wife or brothers, Robert and Willis, often showed up with snacks, food and Gatorade.
Collier said his involvement at the club had ended by the time its most famous alum — New York Yankees baseball great Alex Rodriguez — was a regular at the youth facility. Collier said Rodriguez played against his son Tracy 's team at some point and he got a chance to watch young Rodriguez play.
In September 2015, A-Rod presented a check for $1 million to the Boys and Girls Cubs of Miami-Dade. Rodriguez credits his baseball success to the training he received at the Coconut Grove youth facility.
"I know him very well," Collier said of A-Rod. "But my time had ended when he came through" the club.
Back then annual membership dues for the athletic program cost $6 per child (later raised to $10). When many participants couldn’t come up with the money, Collier stepped up. “He stood up at church one Sunday and said he would pay for them; all they had to do was show up,” said Collier’s son, Tracy, of Cutler Bay. “He kept a lot of kids off the streets in Coconut Grove.”
Those formative years at the youth club were “a part of my life that made an impact on me,” said Sandra Gale McArthur. “It was very, very instrumental in our lives,” said McArthur, who went on to become a city of Miami police lieutenant. What she and others learned were the kind of “soft skills” coveted by employers today: leadership skills and the importance of respect, fitness, good grades, punctuality, teamwork, sharing and caring for others. She added: “I was blessed to be a part of the boys and girls club.”
When Collier led a push to add cheerleaders to the then all-boys club, McArthur was one of the first girls to join. She and about 10 other girls met at another parent’s single-family home in the Grove to learn their cheer routines.
“Most of the kids lived in apartments,” McArthur said, adding she, her three brothers and single mother lived in a one-bedroom unit. Seeing the other family’s style of living gave her hope. “I said, ‘Wow, we can do better. We can live like this.’” McArthur said she was inspired to work hard to get what she wanted and even got a job bagging groceries at age 13 to help her family.
“Some of our parents were struggling and didn’t have the money for the bobby socks and the sneakers and the black and white [cheerleading] outfits,” said McArthur, of Northwest Dade. But the Colliers arranged to have the uniforms made and carpooled to transport the girls to and from the games. “They took care of us,” McArthur said, adding the nurturing extended beyond the athletic field. “They wanted to know about your grades. They wanted to see those report cards.”
Faye Ellis of Naranja said former boys and girls club members realized they saw each other only at funerals and many had not seen Collier in decades. When Collier told his sons he wanted to see what had become of some of the kids he had mentored, son Tracy, Ellis and others went to work. They posted the reunion on Facebook and got “an overwhelming response,” Ellis said.
“He did a lot for the boys and girls club and for the underprivileged,” Ellis said. “Everybody just loved and respected him.”
Collier, who retired from the city of Miami and returned to south Georgia in 2006, continues to give back to youth.
He and his wife Victoria occasionally speak to youth at the local high school, joining them for lunch. They counsel the youth to stay in school and do well so they can grow into outstanding men and women. They have also hosted cookouts and an Easter Egg hunt at their home for the young people from their church.
Festivities for the Southwest Boys and Girls Club reunion in Georgia will include a fish fry Friday night and a barbecue on Saturday. Collier expects to shed many tears as he greets his former charges. He will see many for the first time in 30 or 40 years.
Said Collier: “They still haven’t forgotten about me. They still remember me.”
For more information
If you were a Southwest Boys and Girls Club member from the late 1960s to the 1980s and want more information about the Sylvester Collier reunion, contact Tracy Collier at 305-781-6559.