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Can sports build neighborhoods?

In the Little Village neighborhood, a few miles southwest of Chicago's Loop, the four buildings on the campus of the Gary and Ortiz Elementary Schools are frequent targets of gang graffiti.

So, for nearly three hours on a recent April Saturday, more than 400 community residents painted interior and exterior walls, planted flowers and did whatever else they could to spruce up the site.

When it was done, Rob Castaneda was delighted to hear some of the students proclaim, "Our school is beautiful."

Not bad, considering its nickname is "Scary Gary."

Even more interesting, the clean-up effort — aimed at jumpstarting residents to take ownership of their neighborhood — wasn't the brainchild of a PTA.  Or a community development corporation.  Or a church group.

It grew out of a sports program.

'Engaging people'

Castaneda is the executive director of Beyond the Balla non-profit organization that provides opportunities for children in tough neighborhoods to play sports.

But, as he explained to a meeting of community development leaders assembled April 26 by the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development, it does much more than that.

"Sports is an amazing tool," said Rob Castaneda to community development experts gathered by the Institute for Comprehensive Community Development.

"Globally, people are realizing that sports can help in engaging people in very harsh environments," Castaneda said.  "If kids can't feel safe, they can't engage in education." 

Indeed, last fall, Beyond the Ball won the 2010 Award for the Most Courageous Use of Sport, given by Beyond Sport, an international group that promotes the use of sport to create positive social change around the world.

"Parents want to provide positive activities/interactions for their children," wrote one Little Village resident on the award comment board.  "Thanks for guiding them through your program and providing these awesome opportunities. Chicago summers are too short to be indoors."

"Oh, my God, I realized I've totally missed the boat," recalled Jim Capraro.

'Getting these people together'

Jim Capraro, a senior fellow with the Institute and former executive director of the Greater Southwest Development Corp., told other participants at the meeting, "I was an old-man, CDC director, and I just dismissed sports."

Then, in 2007, he talked with Castaneda and Keri Blackwell, the program officer for the Chicago affiliate of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), and learned how Beyond the Ball was, well, very much beyond ball games.

And beyond Little Village.  With LISC/Chicago's help, the program has expanded to 13 other Chicago communities.

"Oh, my God, I realized I've totally missed the boat," said Capraro.  "There's a value in getting these people together."

For instance, Bitty Ball provides an opportunity for girls and boys, from five up, to play basketball and, also, soccer.

Good exercise, of course.  But, as the kids are playing ball, they're also finding an engrossing activity which has nothing to do with gang culture around them.  And they're not just being taught how to dribble and pass, but also how to work together in a community, how to respect each other, how to be responsible for their actions and how to lead.

"It builds positive peer groups," said Castaneda.  "Sports is part of a healthy life, but there are all these other things."

Similarly, B-Ball on the Block, for kids 8 to 19, sets up hoops on neighborhood streets that are usually hotbeds of gang activity.  So the children and teens get a chance to play some ball.  But they also see their street in a different way — as a safe place.  Parents come out and meet each other, Castaneda said, and community leaders attend the games for the chance to talk with residents.

The mission of Beyond the Ball is "to harness the power of sport to help people transform their community, not escape it."   In other words, to make the community safe enough and friendly enough to be seen as home. 

"Long term," Castaneda said, "we are encouraging our kids to stay."

'An amazing tool'

Castaneda told those at the Institute meeting that the program got its start in 2005 with the question: "How do we engage our community not to see gang culture as a norm?"

By working with kids and teens, the program is able to touch gang-members in a non-confrontational way.  "Gangs don't live in a bubble," he said.  "These are their children.  It's them.  It's their nieces and nephews."

He added, "A lot of people tend to overlook sports because it's sports. 

"But sports is an amazing tool.  It's pro-active.  It's not re-active.  And it's socially inclusive."