When Kenyatta Jones heard the premise behind the Englewood Police Youth Baseball League, she quickly signed up her 9-year-old son, DaQuan Williams.
“I think this is such a good thing for young black boys, and they’ve even got the girls playing,” Jones said Wednesday as she rooted for her son’s Tigers at Hamilton Park in Englewood.
“With as much violence going on in the city, it’s a real good thing to have police actually involved with the community,” Jones said.
Wednesday was opening day for the unique baseball league that launched in May in the South Side Englewood neighborhood — where the game is about more than baseball.
In this league, about 100 boys and girls, ages 9 to 12, are looking to stay safe this summer from the violence that plagues their community.
Looking to help them are dozens of current and retired Chicago Police officers — their team coaches.
“If the youth don’t trust the organization that is in charge of our safety and security on the streets, they’ll fall to the gangs and street violence,” said Marco Johnson, president of the Chicago Police Athletic League, one of the groups involved.
“We need kids to trust us and not believe everything that they see on TV,” said Johnson, who retired in 2013 after 28 years on the Chicago Police Department.
Officers from Johnson’s organization, and particularly officers from the 7th District in Englewood, are volunteers in the anti-violence initiative funded by Get In Chicago, the business group solicited by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to help fight violence by funding programs targeting at-risk youths.
“It’s a real blessing to get out here and interact with these kids in a positive manner, to share with them the value of sports and sportsmanship,” said 7th District Tactical Lt. Eric Olson, coach of the Tigers team.
Get In Chicago and organizers hope the league will counteract some of the misgivings between the black community and police in the wake of anger and protests that gripped the nation over deaths of black men under arrest or in custody of white police.
“Hamilton Park had been really underutilized, according to the Park District, so we were excited to set up this league with police as coaches, managers and mentors,” said Toni Irving, executive director of Get In Chicago.
“The goal, with what’s been going on in the country in the last six to nine months, in Ferguson, North Carolina and Baltimore, is really building trust between the community and police,” Irving said. “There’s a problematic representation of African-American youth, and these perceptions manifest themselves in action. This is an opportunity, not legislated or mandated, for young people and police to get to know each other better.”
Run by the nonprofit Teamwork Englewood, the league is among 20 projects that received $4 million this month from Get In Chicago.
Perry Gunn, executive director of Teamwork Englewood, said coaches and youths on the six teams, most named for former Negro Baseball League teams, have been meeting weekly for practice and mentoring sessions.
“Now it’s game time. We’re ready to go,” he said. “We’re just so proud of the kids for all the hard work they’ve put in, and just to see Hamilton Park with young kids on a baseball diamond, and the excitement and energy, is truly a blessing.”
For Jones’ son, the experience has changed his perception of police.
“I was scared of them, but now I’m not,” DaQuan said. “I think they help children, and Coach Olson says we’re gonna win.”