A local nonprofit in Athens, GA is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Chess and Community, founded by Lemuel “Life” LeRoche may have just celebrated its tenth anniversary this past March, but was born nearly twenty years ago in the early 2000s.
As a Brooklyn, New York native, LaRoche witnessed systemic and systematic issues within the Black community, including that of mass incarceration. As a teen, he moved to Macon, Georgia with the expectation that things would be different. However, he soon realized that the same issues plaguing the north were also prevalent in southern states.
“They are baked into our systemic structures,” he told reporters for redandblack.com.
Knowing that he and his peers could eventually suffer the same fate unnerved LaRoche. “There isn’t a particular age that you notice it, but you know it’s there,” he expounded. “ It’s anger. It’s when you begin to see what the systems were designed to do, doing its job to the people around you. Then it leads you to a point of `If I stay here, I already know what’s going to eventually happen, because it’s written in the design.”
LaRoche knew he wanted to be part of the solution. He first found his own creative outlet through poetry. With his discovery of chess, he decided to offer an outlet to others who desired to be a part of that solution as well. Chess and Community was officially founded in 2012 as a way to get youth to think critically about their actions. LaRoche not only holds degrees in social work from the University of Georgia, he also served in a position at the Department of Juvenile Justice. With his educational and professional background in addition to the time he spent involved in the Athens community, the launch of a non profit to benefit at risk youth felt like a no brainer.
LaRoche admits that at the onset of Chess and Community, there was “all passion, and no real structure,” comparing it to “building a boat while in the water.” But sometimes, figuring it out as you go provides the best and most authentic results. What started out as pizza parties with a few available chess boards, has turned into annual conferences. The organization also boasts additional programs such as debate, public speaking, and robotics.
The Chess and Community founder was clear from the start that he wanted to “figure out a way to stop this revolving door, to stop this quicksand that these kids get sunken into.” Expanding beyond Athens will help him and his team do just that. There are now plans in place to open a new location in what LaRoche considers to be his hometown of Macon.
Hayyah De Lane, a 19 year old Chess and Community alum, says that she was one of several of her 7 siblings to take part in the program. She says that attending the organization’s entrepreneur camp helped set her up for future success.
“He definitely does care for the community that he’s in and others,” she shared about LaRoche. “I see him trying to expand more and more. I’m so grateful that I was thrown into that program, it put me 20 steps ahead. To anybody considering this organization, I would give it a 10/10 and two thumbs up. And that’s genuinely speaking,” De Lane said.
These days, De Lane is busy making her own entrepreneurial moves and says that her participation in the camp helped equip her with the skills she needed to start a hair business. She applies the organization’s motto of “think before you move” to every aspect of her life, and thinks back fondly on her time under LaRoche’s guidance.