- Caleb Kenna
- Cam Whittemore and Tyrell Tyrece Johnson
Within the next few weeks, Rutland expects to receive its first Syrian refugees. The reaction to their imminent arrival has been mixed: Hundreds have volunteered to help them, while others say the newcomers will receive funding and attention that would be better spent on Rutland's own needy residents.
Cam Whittemore has seen a similar story play out in the Marble City before. The 57-year-old played a central role in a drama involving five young men from the Bronx, N.Y. They moved to Rutland in 2010 and 2011, fleeing violence in their urban neighborhoods.
Whittemore, a white Roman Catholic from New England, played surrogate mom to four of the teenagers, who are black. Through a program called Wiz Kids, they had enrolled at Mount St. Joseph Academy to play basketball. In two seasons, they turned the struggling parochial school's squad from a three-win team to a Division II state champion.
That didn't mean the imported talent was accepted. Local players and parents complained about losing playing time to "outsiders." Rival fans at home and away games chanted racist epithets from the stands. Anonymous accusations cast aspersions on the teens and Whittemore, who found herself under attack in a city she had called home for more than three decades.
Six years later, Whittemore still has skin in the game. She's host mother to another New York City youth — her eighth — who is now a senior at Rutland High School. And she's pitched in as a volunteer with Rutland Welcomes, helping with a clothes drive for the city's soon-to-arrive Syrians. Along with a couple dozen other community members, Whittemore is taking free Arabic classes at the Unitarian Universalist Church so she can learn key phrases to greet her new neighbors in their native tongue.
Whittemore knows firsthand how hard it can be starting anew in Rutland.
"You don't judge people by looking at them," she said. "Everybody has a story."
All in the Families
- Caleb Kenna
- Cam Whittemore and Tyrell Tyrece Johnson
Whittemore's modest Charles Street home in downtown Rutland holds plenty of knickknacks. Black-and-white photos of her parents and grandparents and a small portrait of Pope John Paul II adorn chests of drawers. Artwork created by her now-grown biological children dots the walls of the family and dining rooms.
In the living room, sitting atop an unused pellet stove, is a large trophy from a recent basketball tournament. It belongs to Tyrell Tyrece Johnson, Whittemore's current charge. A bowl in the kitchen is filled with photos of Johnson in his football gear.
The 18-year-old has lived with Whittemore since 2014.
"She never gets mad," said Johnson of the woman he considers his "second mom."
Whittemore said it's a trait she inherited from her father, a postal worker: "He was very easygoing, never rushed to anger."
Growing up in the tiny Windsor County town of Perkinsville, she was one of seven kids, five of whom were boys. Sports played a central role in the household. Her father and brothers played baseball, and she played softball.
In 1978, Whittemore moved to Rutland to attend the College of St. Joseph — a Catholic liberal arts school down the street from MSJ. There wasn't much to do during the winter, so she volunteered to keep the clock and scoreboard for the basketball teams.
After graduating, Whittemore met and married Bob Gilligan. The couple had three children before divorcing in 1993. Whittemore became a mail carrier, like her father, raised the kids and sent them to MSJ for high school. Her two youngest played basketball, and Whittemore, by then a parent representative to the school board, kept score during games — just like she had in college.
Whittemore remained on the school board even after her children had graduated. In 2009, she helped to convince Mark Benetatos, an old friend from college, to apply for the open basketball coach position. MSJ was facing declining enrollment, and the basketball team was in "dire" straits, Benetatos said.
The first year he coached, the Mounties lost 17 of 20 games.
In the fall of 2009, a friend of a friend connected Benetatos with coach Clarence "Mugsy" Leggett, the brains behind the New York-based recreational Wiz Kids basketball program, which acts as a pipeline to get young athletes out of the inner city. Both agreed they had mutual interest in bringing a group of kids north.
"My father was born in the southern Bronx," said Benetatos. "I knew from him that's a pretty rough area."
The coach also wanted to rejuvenate his basketball team. "I was hired to build a program," said the New Jersey native. "I didn't care where [the players] came from."
Whittemore said that some of the boys are second-generation Americans whose parents were born in Honduras, Trinidad or Jamaica. Most have had close family members killed, she noted.
The Bronx teens were excited to get out of urban housing projects, including the Edenwald Houses, an area that saw 78 homicides between 2009 and 2012. Rob Cassell, who attended MSJ for two years and stayed with a different host family, described the Wiz Kids program as "a platform" that allowed him to get out of New York City and exposed him to different experiences.
"It wasn't really about basketball. It was about education," said Leggett. "I want them to see a different environment, not just the killings and shootings in New York City."
The Rutland Roller Coaster
- Caleb Kenna
- Tyrell Tyrece Johnson
MSJ recruits families to host out-of-state and international students, who come from countries including China, Germany, Haiti and South Korea. Candidate families have to complete an application form and submit to interviews and home inspections.
When Whittemore volunteered to host one of the boys from the Bronx, she said none of that happened. She was supposed to receive a combined monthly stipend of $600 from Jaskin Melendez's family and the school for providing him room and board. Alumni and donors would pay 90 percent of his tuition bill, while his family had to fork out the rest, which came to about $500 a year.
But Whittemore soon had to adjust her plans when three other host families backed out.
The empty nester agreed to take three more young men. She had started dating Benetatos, and the couple got engaged during the spring of 2010. The coach offered to put the teens and Whittemore up for free in his parents' old home in Rutland Town. Tricia Beehler, a mother of two young children, agreed to host Cassell.
Benetatos said some in town accused Whittemore of making a profit off her arrangement. "Bullshit — it was costing her money," he said, adding that growing teens eat. "And they eat a lot." Whittemore also bought the kids sneakers and other sports equipment, Benetatos noted, even when some of the families stopped sending her stipend money.
Although she was initially anxious about taking in four teens, Whittemore said they proved more mature than her own children. The boys did chores and their own laundry. "My kids [took] clothes out of the dryer and [went] to school," she recalled. "But those guys got up early and ironed their clothes."
When four of the players arrived in Rutland in the fall of 2010, "everything was good," Cassell said. But as time went on, the new players felt resentment building among their Vermont peers. Less than two months into the school year, a student assaulted one of the Bronx teens, Jahnathan Mitchell, at a park. A couple of months later, John Dewey — who was the last to arrive in January 2011 — was involved in a verbal spat with another player. The local teen's mom complained to school officials. Benetatos punished Dewey by relegating him to the junior varsity team for the rest of the season, a decision the coach said he later regretted. The other student went unpunished.
As the team chalked up win after win, the disgruntled parents complained that their sons had lost playing time. The Bronx teens were viewed as usurpers who took the local kids' places — though not all of the newcomers were starters.
In January 2011, a parent sent an email to Benetatos: "We feel very strongly that we need to take care of the local roots and not overlook the fact that we need local kids to keep the school open," it read. Another Wiz Kid from the Bronx, who had been accepted to attend MSJ that fall, was turned away just weeks before school resumed.
During games, the boys, said they were subjected to racial taunts from rival supporters, such as "We don't know why you niggers are here," "Who let you in here?" and "This is a white man's place."
At least one "Get the Bronx out of Rutland" sign showed up in a car window in town. There was more nastiness on Facebook. Cassell said Mitchell got harassed in the hallways at school.
The teens knew that one wrong move could get them kicked off the team or sent back to New York.
"We just had to take it," said Cassell.
- Courtesy Of Omari Brown
- Cam Whittemore and Omari Brown
At home, Whittemore provided a sanctuary for the boys. "It was like a regular family," she said. She dropped them off at school on her way to work, picked them up, made sure they carbo-loaded before games, and ferried them to practice and to medical appointments.
"I put myself in their mom's situation," said Whittemore. "If I had to send my kid away so he would be safer, I would want someone to take him in and be nice to him and treat him as their own."
Whittemore noticed that, unlike her own children, who had lots of friends, the Bronx teens kept mostly to themselves. But the boys shared stories over meals. "Dinnertime was the most fun. That was my favorite," Whittemore said, noting that they loved her meatloaf, shepherd's pie, and spaghetti and meatballs. One of the players was a Rasta, so she made sure his food never touched pork products.
But the harmonious home life took a dark turn in the fall of 2011. That's when an MSJ alumnus sent the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington an anonymous letter comparing Whittemore to Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach who was convicted of sexually abusing children. The MSJ principal ordered her to submit to a criminal background check. She was fingerprinted at the police station. No criminal history turned up.
The school principal inspected the house where Whittemore and the boys lived and, finding nothing amiss, allowed her to continue as a host.
The Rutland Police Department said it had no record of a criminal investigation into Whittemore. The Diocese confirmed that Whittemore adhered to a "policy for all adults working with youth."
"There was no claim of any kind of abuse," a diocese spokeswoman said by email.
The current MSJ principal did not respond to requests for an interview.
Back in New York, Leggett was astounded by the accusation. "That was very crazy for me," he fumed. "They wanted to get rid of the boys."
Whittemore said she was embarrassed by the investigation. "I didn't want to talk to the boys about it and have them worried," she said. "My mother was very upset. She wrote a letter to the bishop but never heard anything back."
The episode also disturbed Whittemore's younger daughter, Lacie Gilligan, now 26. "It was heartbreaking," said the nursing student at Castleton University. "That was the last thing we expected my mom to go through."
Gilligan said her mother never wavered or retaliated. "She just dealt with it," she noted. "That was the message for us, for her kids. You can't let [the negativity] stop you from doing good."
A Championship Marred
- Courtesy Of Mark Benetatos
- MSJ basketball team, 2012
During the 2011-12 basketball season, the Bronx boys spurred their new school to a 22-2 record that culminated in a Division II state championship. In April 2012, the state legislature passed a resolution congratulating the team.
But that high was quickly followed by lows for Benetatos, Whittemore and the Wiz Kids themselves.
"I made the film to tell the actual fact-based truth about what happened, in order to fight racism here in Vermont," said Carleton.
Released in August, the documentary recounts how the school community disregarded the team's accomplishment. No championship banquet was held. The team members received their letter jackets unceremoniously outside the school. The school didn't raise a banner in the gym rafters until later in the year, after most of the players had graduated.
Benetatos resigned in May 2012 and contends he was forced out. Dewey, the player relegated to the junior varsity team, transferred to a Catholic school in the Bronx.
And MSJ, according to Whittemore, told her she couldn't host the last remaining player — Mitchell — because she's a single mother. The teen lived with another host family for his senior year.
Benetatos went on to coach at Mill River Union High School in North Clarendon for the 2013-14 season. Whittemore became the legal guardian of and hosted two more Bronx boys — junior Omari Brown and senior Jonathan Brioso — who played for Benetatos.
In the summer of 2014, a group of Mill River parents complained to the principal about Benetatos after learning that two more Wiz Kids had enrolled. His coaching contract wasn't renewed.
By then, Brioso had graduated and Whittemore decided to take Brown out of Mill River. That fall, he and the two newly arrived New York teens, Johnson and Saquan Goland, transferred to Rutland High School and lived with Whittemore.
After Brown and Goland graduated in 2015, Whittemore and Johnson moved back into her smaller house in Rutland. Around that time, she and Benetatos broke off their engagement.
Although Whittemore said she doesn't play favorites, it's clear she and Johnson have a close relationship. He's the only one of her eight "adopted" boys who has lived at her own house, and Whittemore has gotten to know his family. When Johnson visited New York for Thanksgiving, Whittemore sent mac and cheese along for his sister.
Brown, the teen who spent a year each at Mill River and Rutland, said his "second mom" always made sure he had a cake for his birthday.
"She lighted candles for me," he said. "She showed 100 percent love."
During his time in Vermont, Brown focused on getting an education. And that was the advice he passed on to Johnson: "Go to class. Get your work done. Come for practice. Be ready. Work hard."
Johnson said he's taken those words of wisdom to heart. Though he misses his family, he believes it's important for him to remain in the Green Mountain State.
"You get more opportunities doing something here than down in the city," said Johnson. "You'd also be more safe here."
- Courtesy Of Omari Brown
- Left to right: Omari Brown, Cam Whittemore and Saquan Goland
It wasn't always easy for Whittemore's younger daughter to share her mother. But a couple of years ago, she saw some of the Christmas cards the boys sent.
"It hit home for me," said Lacie, "how thankful they were for her."
If Johnson graduates and attends college, as he expects to, all eight of Whittemore's charges will have gone on to postsecondary schooling. One, Shannon Murray, played basketball as an undergrad and is now going for his master's degree in clinical counseling at New England College in Henniker, N.H. Cassell and Melendez played there as well. Dewey is emerging as a star guard at Sam Houston State University, an NCAA Division I school in Texas. Goland plays center for Fulton-Montgomery Community College in Johnstown, N.Y. Brioso stayed in Rutland and plays basketball at the College of St. Joseph. Mitchell moved back to the Bronx to play basketball at Hostos Community College.
Whittemore helped Brown apply for federal student financial aid. Now he's a freshman playing basketball at Alamance Community College in North Carolina.
When his mother, Lisa Brown, visited him in Rutland, she was surprised to see how he had matured. She could never get him take out the garbage at home, she said. Although she initially didn't want to let her son leave New York City, she was glad she did.
"[It was] the best thing in my life I did," said the 53-year-old home health aide. "In the city, you could get involved in the wrong crowd."
Once Johnson finishes school, Whittemore is calling it quits with hosting basketball players. She wants to spend more time with her year-old baby granddaughter in Middlebury.
"She's done enough," Brown said of her son's surrogate mother. "I told her, 'You've got enough kids to come back and give you all the hugs in the world.'"
Besides, there are plenty of other volunteer opportunities in Rutland. Whittemore understands the value of a safe community and wants to pitch in to help her new Syrian neighbors. "And they are coming from a worse situation than my boys did," she said.
Her friend Benetatos feels the same.
"The five young men who were here, they are citizens. Look at what those poor souls went through," he said. "How [is Rutland] going to accept 100 people from a different country?"