Stealing Home: How a Community Baseball Programme is Redefining Some of Chicago’s Most Dangerous Nei
LaVonté Stewart was coaching a boys’ baseball team in Chicago when the league they played in folded. While he decided where his boys could next play, he arranged for them to practice in Rosenblum Park, on the city’s South Side. That’s what they were doing when something happened that would change the lives of a generation of young people in the most dangerous areas of one of the most violent cities in the United States.
“We saw two guys chasing another guy with a gun out,” remembers LaVonté. “I’m old school, I hit the dirt, but the kids were standing around laughing, taking bets, talking about what would happen next. In that moment, I realised that they were desensitised to violence. I sort of had an epiphany.
“The kids were lost. Our community was lost. They needed help. I knew that it was gonna take more than just sport – more than just baseball – but I knew that that sport was gonna be the base of it all. I knew as an athlete what sports did for my life. Athletes have a level of resilience that's different to the average person. That's what I wanted to bring to young people across Chicago, through Lost Boyz.”
Over a decade later, Lost Boyz is still rooted in a community baseball programme run by and for the people of the South Side and the West Side of Chicago. However, the boys and girls who show up learn a lot more than how to run the bases.
“Our mission is to decrease violence among youth, improve their social-emotional condition and create financial, economic and academic opportunities for young people,” says Stewart. “Our job is to break down barriers, open doors, protect them from the things that are waiting out here for them. If they get good at baseball, great. If they don't, so what? The goal is that they're champions on and off the field.”
As well as baseball, the members of Lost Boyz learn about leadership and business, about the history of their sport and their city. Boys and girls that rarely travel outside of their own community go camping.
The programme is supported by Laureus Sport for Good and its mission overlaps with the words of the founding patron of that organisation, Nelson Mandela: “Sport has the power to change the world.”
For many of the young participants, that means an escape from the violence that is impossible to avoid. Elayja Stewart is 17 and now coaches one of the younger girls’ teams in the organisation. She explained the environmental challenges faced by many of the kids who arrive at the project.
“We have been damaged, people we know have been shot,” she said. “I've lost family members to gun violence, which made me grow up a little bit earlier because seeing this as a child, having to go in the hospital to see your sister, brother, cousin on a hospital bed, shot, makes you look at things a little bit differently. It makes you wonder things as a kid.
“I'm leaning towards becoming a counsellor for troubled children, because of Lost Boyz. That's what we do here, help kids that need help or that we can see going down the wrong path.”
LaVonté Stewart describes the problems faced by Chicago as being “rooted in social and economic inequality” that can be mapped along geographical and racial lines. The mostly black South Side and West Side seem to be a world away from the idyllic North Side of the city.
However, speaking to the coaches, young athletes and the founder of Lost Boyz, there is a collective pride in, and love for, their own community, and that is at the heart of this remarkable project. The city they strive for is one where sport helps these young people to overcome violence and inequality. That way, everyone wins.
Madison Marie Bradley is 10 years old and one of the young girls coached by Elejah. “It's like I have one huge family, I have one huge community,” she said. “I want to grow up in Chicago, but if I do move somewhere else and someone asks me where I’m from, I'll say I’m from Chicago.”
“Give these young people an opportunity to live their lives, to become the things that they dreamed – there's no reason why we should be burying seven-year-old girls,” said LaVonté Stewart.
“I want to see Chicago become a world-class city that's equitable. That the South and the West and the North Sides all look alike, that they have access to resources and opportunities equally. Not because of the colour of our skin but because of our hearts and the myriad of our work.”