Behind the sports, a backdrop of organizing

The athletic competitions at four high schools over the last six days have taken on the quality of a routine. Middle and high school students stroll in, participate in a variety of sports, eat lunch, compete some more, then head home. On Saturday, the best teams and individual finalists will face off for the medals at Crane Technical Prep High School.

Oji Eggleston: "Couldn't have done it without partnerships."

Alex Fledderjohn

But that apparently loose routine belies the work that went into planning and staging a week-long, first-time event with only 60 days notice. Recruiting more than 1,500 kids, getting their parents’ consent, identifying schools to host the events, rounding up equipment, transporting kids to and from the schools, establishing teams, keeping them engaged and fed – it was like moving an army. As much as Spring Into Sports is a sports event, it’s also a tribute to community organizing.

“We couldn’t have done it without the existing strong partnerships we have with the community and with community organizations,” said Oji Eggleston, who organizes youth programs for the Near West Side Community Development Corporation and was in charge of SIS activities at Crane. “We have relationships with all the grammar schools and high schools, and with the coaches, who are the gym teachers.”

Those connections were essential in signing up students. But that was only half the battle. “When you have 170-200 kids coming together with the intention of participating in sports – competitive sports – you never know what could happen,” he said.  “What really surprised me was the attitude of the kids. They really embraced everything that was going on. Their level of participation just exceeded my expectations.”

Overcoming rivalries

Matt DeMateo: "We've had no problems here."

That good-natured engagement was apparent at the other schools as well. Matt DeMateo, youth pastor at Little Village’s New Life Community Church and sports director for SIS at Little Village Lawndale High School, attributed the healthy atmosphere over the last few days to the success of neighborhood sports programs such as Beyond the Ball and B-Ball on the Block.

Players, coaches and referees who’ve participated over the past few years have gotten to know and respect one another. Their common interest – basketball – has enabled them to overcome the rivalries and distrust that have spawned intense gang activity in the two adjoining neighborhoods.

“We’re building a real connection between the neighborhoods,” said DeMateo, “neighborhoods that have had problems. But we’ve had no problems here. They’ve been playing hard, but they shake hands and hang out afterwards.”

The young athletes have also been grateful for access to the Little Village Lawndale gym. “We’ve got 100,000 people in Little Village and half of them are under 25,” said DeMateo. “There’s very little green or recreational space here, so when we can get access to some, we grab it.”

Networking for kids

The intense but healthy competition is a reflection of what Rob Castañeda, the Spring Into Sports league manager, has achieved through Beyond the Ball, a program he established several years ago to involve youth through basketball. It’s only partly about sports. It’s completely about a network of people who share the vision of engaging kids.

Rob Castañeda: "We look for who is most interested."

Alex Fledderjohn

“We don’t look for top talent,” he said. “We look for who is most interested in being involved.” Team captains, for example, aren’t necessarily the best players. Instead, they’re the ones whose personalities are best suited to determining who plays, and when. They’re de facto coaches, who, through basketball, are learning the lessons of life.

Those lessons will be displayed Saturday at Crane through the competitions, speeches, medal ceremonies and other fanfare associated with “the finals.” But the bottom line for Keith Muhammad, an organizer for Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation who’s been involved with SIS at Orr High School, is that for a few days a bunch of kids are getting some attention that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

Muhammad graduated from Orr in 1979 and lives in the neighborhood. In the weeks leading up to the tourney, he drove around in his van urging kids on the street to participate in SIS.

“This is about people wanting love and attention,” he said. “Of encouraging them to participate in this, to make them think it matters. I know it’s a cliché, but that’s just how it is.”

Home page photo by Juan Francisco Hernandez.