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IMG_4660 BY JEFF FALK

LEBANON – He is the possessor of a rare and unique talent. George Rodriguez can affect the behavior of other people, he can cause them to do things that they previously would’ve only thought about doing.

But Rodriguez also seems to realize that the purest way to utilize those gifts is to help the people he moves.

Rodriguez is the new facilitator of the Salvation Army’s youth basketball program. Before he came aboard, the Salvation Army’s youth basketball program was doing very well with its participation – thank you, very much.

But since taking over, Rodriguez, a lieutenant in God’s Army, if you will, has taken the program’s participation to brand-new heights. Rodriguez is also the organizer and coordinator of the city’s wildly-popular, late-summer basketball festival known as ‘Sweep The Streets’, as well as other multi-cultural events around the city.

Located at 1031 Guildford Street, on Lebanon’s infamous ‘Northside’, the Salvation Army seeks to aid the economically challenged and under-privileged with programs like its youth basketball initiative.

“”By that,  it means, ‘making people say I’ll help you,'” said Rodriguez, known on the streets simply as ‘GZO’. “‘I’ll be a part of it. What can I do?’ We use it every day. You can never have too much help. I can’t do it by myself. We have to form a team, form an army. I think it’s pretty cool. I think that’s what’s going to make the program grow.

IMG_4704“The main thing is for the city to recognize what’s going on,” Rodriguez continued. “The population is growing, and we need more things like this. People need to know we’re out here doing the right thing.”

In GZO’s world, basketball doesn’t have a season. It never ends.

With different age groups gracing center stage at the facility’s indoor gymnasium, the Salvation Army’s youth basketball program runs year-round. The youth are broken into five different age categories – 5-8, 9-11, 12-14, 15-17 and adult, 18-and over – allowing the program to attract some 400 participants.

That number rivals any basketball program that has ever been conducted in Lebanon County, and makes it one of the most popular athletic program the locale has ever seen.

“They’ve been doing basketball here,” said Rodirquez. “When I came, I talked with Captain (Moises) Rivera about it, and it took off from there. More kids are out. The word has spread. There’s more parents, and the community is involved.

“I’ve always been involved with basketball,” added Rodriguez. “When I came to him (Rivera) he said, ‘Let’s make sure we do something to get the youth involved’.”

IMG_4696Employing his charisma and style, Rodriguez has transformed what was once more of a recreational pursuit into a league complete with a scorer’s table, stats, game t-shirts with affiliations to NBA teams and player introductions. GZO called it ‘giving it an NBA feel.’

“We have close to 400 players who come through that door throughout the year,” said Rodriquez. “It’s phenomenal. I’m blown away by how many come through there, from urban to the suburbs, all up in one gym. This is fresh, the whole league thing. The program has been around, and now it’s taking off. Captain (Rivera) and I teamed up.

“It’s inner-city kids. It’s outer-city kids. They’re from all over Lebanon County,” continued Rodriguez. “But it’s mostly city kids. I’d say about 80 percent. It’s great. It’s what we want. The Salvation Army is about inner-city. We help people who need something positive in their lives.”

As the youth basketball program’s organizer, Rodriquez does it all, everything from serving as league commissioner, to managing the website, to securing t-shirts – you name it, he does it. But where he flourishes is as a promoter, a public-address announcer, a master of ceremonies and a voice or reason.

“I do it all,” said Rodriguez. “Organize it. Run the washing machine. Go out and sign up kids. Do the draft. Recruit coaches. Pick up trophies. The scorer’s table. M.C.

“The ultimate goal is to build skills,” Rodriguez added. “With the older kids, get them on to a higher level. We’re helping the schools out. In the way bigger picture, it’s getting them off the streets and getting them on the right path at a young age. It’s a mentor-ship program. A player could start out with us when he was six and play until he’s in the adult league, and he’s been with us for ten years.”

IMG_4670Rodriguez was born in Philadelphia and raised in Lebanon. He dropped out of school in 2003, and later when back to get his General Educational Development degree.

When it comes to Rodriguez, one is left with the distinct impression that he was influenced by a program similar to the one that he is currently running, or that he could’ve been.

“When you look in their eyes it gives you the belief that this is why we do it,” said Rodriguez. “Their face, their smile tells it all.

“A lot of the staff, we’ve been there, we’ve done that and we understand it,” Rodriguez added. “It’s about putting a positive message out there and allowing them to be a part of something.’

Rodriguez has the most charismatic character one will ever run across, and the possessor of what professors might refer to as ‘an infectious personality’. But there is a quieter, gentler, more serene, more serious, more cerebral side to GZO.

In that way, he is wise beyond his years.

“Humble,” said Rodriguez. “I’m very humble. Out-going. Comfortable in all different situations. An all-around good guy with a good heart.

IMG_4667“I would like to see this continue to grow, with players, teams, coaches, volunteers,” concluded Rodriguez. “When I’m not around, I want it to continue to grow. No matter what, we need to make sure we get more community involvement, with sponsorships and donations.”

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