Using sports to create community on Chicago’s South Side
Lost Boyz Inc. founder LaVonte Stewart is teaching young people the skills to cope and succeed in a neighborhood plagued by violence
Meet the finalists for The Atlantic’s Renewal Awards, underwritten by Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $100,000 in grant money. Five winners will be announced March 30 at The Renewal Summit in Washington, on TheAtlantic.com, and here, on The Renewal Project.
LaVonte Stewart Sr. is the founder and Executive Director of Lost Boyz Inc., an organization that provides mentoring, tutoring, and leadership training through sports.
He began his community work in 2005 as a Little League coach. He founded Lost Boyz in 2009 after seeing how poverty and violence was affecting young people in his south Chicago neighborhood.
This questionnaire has been edited for length and clarity.
Describe your community:
Our programs are open to all youth in the South Shore community between the ages of 4 and 24. Program participants are typically, but not necessarily, from low-income households and/or single-parent African American households. According to recent Census data, 94 percent of South Shore residents are African American. Nearly 35 percent live below the poverty level. Out of the 77 communities in Chicago, South Shore regularly ranks near the top in violent crime rates in the city. Violence, particularly youth violence, is pervasive and continues at an alarming rate. Accordingly, although our programs are open, we target at-risk youth, and specifically those who have trouble with their academic performance or behavior in and out of school. During the 2016 season, 30 percent of our program participants were girls, 70 percent were boys, and 98 percent were African American.
What inspired you to do this work?
Hands down, being the father of a beautiful baby boy with my name and brains, and his mother’s good looks. The most endangered species in this country is the black male youth under 40 years old. Specifically, in 2008 I was disbanding the team as the league I volunteered for had folded; while doing so the boys and I observed a man chasing another man across the park with their guns out. It was the middle of the day and this was happening. I was floored and shaken to my core about what we had let happen to the community. I vowed then to give my son and boys like him a better future and a real chance in South Shore, as opposed to packing up and running with my family.
What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?
Using evidence-based models rooted in the Positive Youth Development Theory and Developmental Systems Theory, with an emphasis on sports inclusion, the Lost Boyz programs focus on recreating, educating, and cultivating youth by enhancing their interests, skills, and abilities. From January through August of every year, Lost Boyz services youth under 17 years of age through youth baseball, tutoring and varying civic engagement activities and projects. Recognizing the importance of sustaining development through young adulthood, Lost Boyz also provides continued social, educational and professional opportunities for youth aged 18-24.
Countless studies have found that when young people engage in organized sports, they learn discipline, respect for themselves and others, fair play, teamwork, how to better manage emotions, healthy habits, and effective relationship management with peers and authority figures. Our organization uses the benefits of team sports as a foundation, with our additional services providing opportunities to improve academic performance, develop personal relationships and sense of community, experience cultural enrichment, and participate in rewarding social recreation. Baseball is more than a game, and when connected with positive and constructive activities it allows for the socialization and character development that is critical to reducing violent behavior or violence victimization.
What do you love about your community?
I love the people who sacrifice every day to make it a better place to live, I love the lakefront and back drop of the Chicago skyline, I love the grit of the residents who are not taken down easily, I love the many leaders that come from my community, I love mostly that it is the cradle of where my family comes from, there are over 300 of my relatives from South Shore alone.
What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?
It is beautiful with a diverse history and home of the first Black President and First Lady of the United States. It should be renamed Obamaville.
What leaders have inspired you?
Dr. Alice Palmer (whose seat Barack Obama took over in the Illinois state senate), Henry English, Dr. Conrad Worrill, Kublai Torre, David Robinson, Useni Perkins, Dr. Martin Luther King (of course), Malcolm X (it’s where I get my edge), Frederick Douglas (my love of politics and civic engagement), Booker T. Washington … I could go on forever. The first six are local leaders who mentored me for a decade or more. Last but not least, my boss in the senate office, Oreal James; for the past six and a half years he has pushed me, challenged me, and supported me in everything I have done, even when I wasn’t confident in myself.