By John Carucci
NEW YORK (AP)—Denzel Washington joined the Boys & Girls Club of America when he was 5. He's never really left.
The 63-year old Oscar and Tony-winning actor says the lessons he learned from the youth organization became the foundation of his success. One valuable lesson came after a track and field event where Washington found he wasn't as fast as one other child.
“I was real nervous about that, and I was thrown off by it,” Washington recalled. A counselor noticed that something was wrong and came over. “I remember him telling me that, ‘You know, yes, that other kid is fast, but he doesn't know how to run. He doesn't know how to run the turns or pass the baton.' And he said: ‘Your natural ability will only take you so far.”'
That advice paid off when learning his craft as an actor. He started performing as a junior in college and had instant success. But he remembered that his natural ability would only take him so far. “So I decided to continue my studies and go on to work on my master's, and that was directly related to an experience I had as a child in the Boys & Girls Club,” Washington said.
It took Washington so far, that on Friday he was named the 47th recipient of the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Washington was in the nation's capital for the annual Boys & Girls Club National Youth of the Year award ceremony. This year's Southwest Youth of the Year recipient was Malachi Haynes, who accepted the honor before an audience that included members of Congress and Boys & Girls Clubs of America supporters, including Washington, who is the national spokesman. Haynes, seated next to Washington, called it surreal. “Probably 30 emotions all at once,” he said of the honor.
When Washington was young, he spent so much time at the Boys & Girls Club of Mount Vernon, New York, that “literally, they had to send me home.” He remembers at one club talent show he played a member of the Beatles.
“I think I was John, if not Paul. I think I was John. I definitely wasn't Ringo. Not that I'm knocking Ringo, but I wasn't playing the drums, I was playing guitar,” he said.
While his children were not as active with the Boys and Girls Club of America, Washington applied the lessons he learned to their upbringing.
“The things I learned in the club I applied to them. All my children played sports like I did in the club, and that was my way because that's what I learned. I was like, ‘OK, I'll get them involved in sports' and my oldest boy made it all the way to the NFL.” (Washington's son, John, played for the St. Louis Rams and recently starred in “Blackkklansman.”)
The organization began in 1860, offering a positive alternative to children than roaming the street. The clubs try to foster character development, citizenship and living a healthy lifestyle. Washington also recalls another element.
“Tough, tough love and keeping them busy. We didn't realize it but we were going from one thing to another. And they kept you engaged, involved and busy. But you just thought you were just having fun.”
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