WOONSOCKET – Jeremy Jones is a lot older and his knees are not as strong as they used to be, but his tall, lanky frame gives the impression that at 36 he’s still a formidable force on the basketball court.
Twelve years ago, Jones, a rising basketball star with an impressive scholastic hoops career at Woonsocket High School and Community College of Rhode Island, was recruited to play at Salem State University where he led the school to its first and only Final Four appearance in 2000.
At 24, Jones, known for his accomplishments both on and off the court, got an offer to play professional basketball overseas in Portugal, but he decided instead to finish school and get the criminal justice degree he had been working toward.
His college career, however, came to a screeching halt when the financial aid he had been given to play NCAA Division III basketball dried up in his senior year. Unable to come up with enough money to continue his education and collect the 30 remaining credits he needed to get his diploma, Jones came back home to Woonsocket.
That’s also when his life began to spiral out of control.
It began with the death of Larry Johnson, a close childhood friend who was killed on Jan. 2, 2001 in a car accident on Route 146. Johnson’s death brought back the same emotions of grief and despair that Jones had felt when he was 10 years old and his father died of a massive heart attack at the age of 60.
Soon, negativity and darkness began to consume him.
“Before I knew it I hit a wall,” says Jones, now 36, and a youth coordinator for Rising Stars, an organization that works with at-risk inner city youths.
Crippled by despair, Jones began drinking and taking drugs, a self-destructive path that would lead to his eventual arrest in 2005 on a misdemeanor larceny charge.
“I was hanging out in neighborhoods I shouldn’t have been hanging out in and associating with people I shouldn’t have been associating with,” says Jones. “Getting arrested was my low point and I knew I had to get my life back, but at the same time, it was the best thing that ever happened to me because it was such a wake-up call.”
After spending two years getting sober at Tri-Hab rehabilitation center on Hamlet Avenue, Jones found his calling when he reconnected with childhood friend, Josh Jenkins, whose father Josh Jenkins Sr. started Rising Stars.
Rising Stars offers music, sports and community safety programs to keep kids away from drugs and gangs.
On Saturday, Rising Star will hold a seat belt safety event at River Island Park featuring the Southside Steppers. The event will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. and feature music, face painting, raffles and food provided by Bugg’d Out BBQ.
As youth coordinator for Rising Stars, Jones helps at-risk kids stay on the right path and make the right choices.
“Our children are our most prized possessions,” says Jones, a father of two sons and two daughters. “Our mission is to equip inner-city children with strategies and programs to save them from drugs, incarceration and feelings of hopelessness about the future.”
The Rising Stars’ theme this year is “Nobody Dies Tonight,” which is part of a comprehensive year-long public safety program. In September, for example, Rising Stars will hold a seat belt safety program in Providence
“Our goal in the next couple of years is to form a coalition of community leaders to reverse the trend of injuries and death from highway accidents and violence,” says Jones.
As for Jones, he is enjoying his new lease on life, which also includes teaching basketball at the YMCA of Greater Woonsocket and working as a basketball coach for the Woonsocket Parks and Recreation Department.
When his dad died 26 years ago, life had begun to unravel for Jones and his mother. The lost their home on North East Street and spent three years living in homeless shelters before moving into a boarding house on Arnold Street — a short walk to the Woonsocket Soup Kitchen on Front Street where they frequently had meals.
Eventually, they ended up in a nice apartment in the Morin Heights neighborhood where Jones first met Jenkins. It was Jenkins, a basketball player, who turned Jones on to the game, and then later to helping kids.
“One of the things I realized when I was getting sober is that none of us are superhuman and everybody makes mistakes in life. When life throws you a curve ball it’s easy to lose your identity and motivation,” he says. “But working with kids is what makes me tick and it’s what makes me get up each morning. Sometimes God lets things happen in our lives that are part of an overall plan that ends up coming full-circle.”