The number of West Side police-sponsored baseball teams is tripling this summer and joining under a single umbrella — the new Chicago Westside Police and Youth Sports Conference.
Building on the foundation of the existing police-sponsored youth baseball teams in Ben Franklin Park in North Lawndale and Columbus Park in Austin, the conference is launching new teams in Garfield Park, West Humboldt Park’s Kells Park and Austin’s La Folette Park and Moore Park. Each team will be sponsored by the local police district, as well as by local churches and community nonprofits. The teams are open to kids in grades third through eighth and are free to join.
The conference officially kicked off on May 1 during a press conference at Franklin Park fieldhouse, 4320 W. 15th St. The officials in attendance described the conference as a way to make a positive impact on the community, provide a safe and healthy environment for kids and their families and build positive relationships.
Sgt. Jermaine Harris, who has been the main driving force behind the conference, said that for officers dealing with trauma, youth baseball provides a positive outlet and reminds them what they are fighting for.
The conference is the collaboration between the 10th, 11th, 15th and 25th police districts. Each baseball team will have up to 20 players, two coaches and the support of at least one church and one nonprofit.
The Garfield Park team, for example, is being sponsored by Breakthrough Urban Ministries. As of the May 1 press conference, a total of 35 law enforcement organizations, churches, sports teams and community organizations officially signed on.
And kids will do more than play baseball. According to the handout, they will be taught about violence reduction, restorative justice practices, nutritional counseling, tutoring, mentoring and leadership.
“The spirit of baseball gives kids an opportunity to practice their social/emotional skills,” Harris told reporters. “We practice working together. We practice what it means to collaborate.”
Harris lives in North Lawndale and serves in the 15th District. He said that officers experience considerable stress on the job. Around 10 years ago, he got involved with Garfield Park Little League baseball. The experience helped him deal with stress and served as a positive reminder why he and other officers “are out there, doing the things we do.”
“Over time, they became my therapy, that refreshing light,” Harris said. “The kind of experience I had, I want to replicate it, I want to see more officers have this experience.”
He approached Ald. Michael Scott (24th), who enthusiastically got on board.
“This is something that should the light upon the West Side,” the alderman said during the press conference.
Ernest Cato, the 15th District commander, said that the conference will teach important skills and build character for kids who need it most.
“It is important to show children that teamwork can be a positive thing,” he said. “The baseball league is going to go from Kedzie to Austin, North Avenue to Roosevelt. You know how many troubled kids there are in those borders?”
Pastor Steve Epting, of Hope Community Church, said that the conference is an opportunity for the West Side faith community to have a bigger positive impact.
“Churches, faith organizations, have an opportunity to be part of this process, so in partnerships with our police departments and our community organizations, it gives up an opportunity to be part of a greater thing,” he said. “If we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.”
Treyshon Patterson, a fifth-grader from Legacy Character School in North Lawndale, said that he has benefited from playing on the Franklin Park Little League baseball team for the past two years. Patterson said that, not only did he learn how to play, but he learned how to work hard and how to lose.
“[I look forward to having fun and, if I lose, I might be mad about it, but at the same time, I found out that you win some, you lose some,” he said.
Charles Anderson, the principal of Michelle Clark High School, said that students from the school will serve as junior coaches for the teams.
According to the conference’s website, the registration closes on May 12 at 6 p.m.
For more information about the conference, including how to register, visit www.chicagowestsidesports.org.