In 2007, the intersection of Kensington Avenue and Somerset Street in Philadelphia was listed as the top “recreational drug” area in the city.

Rocky Balboa, the character played by Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky movies, was from the same area, a part of the city where it isn’t always easy to make ends meet.

For a pair of teenagers from the same neighborhood, wrestling has given them some short-term – and even long-term – goals.

“I never even thought about maybe going to college,” said 16-year old Jon-Carlos Melendez. “I got plans. I want to make it to [the] state [meet], maybe go to college later on.” 

Melendez works with one of eight youth inner-city programs within Beat the Streets Philadelphia. On Tuesday inside the Wells Fargo Center, site of the 2011 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, a group of approximately 240 young wrestlers will take part in a clinic sponsored by Beat the Streets and the NCAA.

Melendez is also part of a group which will get to watch some of the competition and take part in a check presentation on Friday night. The NCAA and the Philadelphia Local Organizing Committee will donate $25,000 to Beat the Streets Philadelphia.

Some of the youth wrestlers will also walk in Saturday’s annual Parade of Champions before the championship finals.

“I’ve never been to anything like this,” Melendez said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”

Beat the Streets Philadelphia Executive Director Chris Hanlon, a graduate and former wrestler at the University of Pennsylvania, has been full-time since last August.

“Wrestling has done so much for me,” Hanlon said. “Being able to give back to the community, especially through wrestling … this is a dream job for me.

“Being able to give some of these kids some structure, some goals to shoot for, it means a lot. Most of the kids in the program come from some pretty rough neighborhoods.”

Melendez was one of those kids failing school and getting into trouble.

“I wasn’t doing so well and they told me I should try and wrestle,” Melendez said. “I didn’t like it at first because it’s hard. But I stuck with it and now I like it. And my grades are a lot better.”

Hanson has seen that change.

“(Jon-Carlos) has only missed six days of school this year. It’s been a complete turnaround,” Hanlon said. “You can see that positive change. For most of these kids consistency is the biggest thing missing from their lives. Sometimes the hardest thing is to get them to practice, to keep them there. A lot of them have a low level of parental envolvement.”

Lender Vega, a 17-year old, is thinking about maybe wrestling at a junior college or a smaller division school.

“I played soccer and my coach told me I should try wrestling,” Vega said. “It was real hard at first. I didn’t like it that much. But I kept coming out and I think it is a fun sport.

“It’s helped me out a lot. It’s good for me.”

Vega has even done some recruiting.

“I tell some of the freshmen that they should stick with it,” he said. “Over the summer I told them to come back and a lot of them did. It’s fun because of my teammates.”

There is light at the end of the tunnel for those who stick with it.

Clarion redshirt-freshman 149 pounder Anthony White attended North Catholic High School in Philadelphia. He won 23 of 35 matches this season in college.

“There are so many ‘ifs’ with these kids,” Hanlon said. “Seeing somebody like Anthony White in college, that’s an inspiration. It shows these kids that it can be done. Taking them to see the NCAA Championships, a high-energy event with this type of atmosphere, that’s going to have 10,000 people there, that’s going to be something new for most of them. Maybe that will inspire somebody else?”

“I’m pretty excited about this week,” said Vega, who attended a Philadelphia Flyers hockey game once.

Former NCAA champion Matt Valenti, a graduate of Penn, and Olympian Brandon Slay, also former star for the Quakers, will participate in Tuesday’s clinic.

“The guys at Penn, coach Rob Eiter, (Matt) Valenti, all those guys, have been a big part of what we are trying to do,” Hanlon said. “I’m excited about the next two or three years and where this program could be.”

Also in attendance will be Dr. Dan Gould, Director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. The well-known professor of Applied Sports Psychology will have an interactive session with the participants.

The 2011 NCAA Championships will be special for the nation’s wrestling fans. But for a handful of inner-city youths from the Philadelphia area it might just be extra special.