December 8, 2016

How a Chicago neighborhood overwhelmed with violence finds healing through sports

A youth baseball league in the South Shore community gives kids the support and confidence they need to flourish

Chicago’s Lost Boyz Inc. is teaching kids how to succeed on the field and in their communities. Photo courtesy of LaVonté Stewart

Going to the local corner store to purchase home and dinner supplies should be as routine as tying your shoes. There is nothing inherently dangerous about it, which is why I was deeply disturbed recently when this “routine” suddenly changed to a reflective moment about life.

On a normal Thursday night, I gathered my 11-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter to make a store run to grab dinner and snacks in time to watch “Pitch.” The moment we entered the store I could see the stress in my son’s body language as about seven to eight teenagers lingered inside the cramped shop. They were so loud I could not hear myself telling the cashier what I needed. (All of the items were behind glass.) As I went back and forth trying to clarify what I was asking for, my son called out to me. I turned and asked him “what?” He said, “let’s just go.” I waved him off and continued barking out items. I heard him call me again; this time when I gave him my attention he said, “Dad I don’t feel comfortable, let’s just go.” My Spidey sense started tingling—I had spent so much time in the same streets as a kid, I had developed a keen sense for knowing when things were going to go awry. I thought something may have been developing around us, so I canceled the order and we left.

Once in the car, my first reaction was one of frustration. I lectured my son on not being fearful or scared, and having to learn how to toughen up in our community. As I looked at his wounded body language, I began to get angry at my community, angry at those teens in the store, angry at whoever their parents were, angry at my local government for allowing communities to exist in these conditions, but mostly angry at myself for my response to my son.

I looked at him again, rubbed his head, and told him it was OK to be scared and that he shouldn’t have to toughen up just to live in his own community. At that moment I understood impact in a new and costly way that I had never considered. At that moment, I knew my 11-year-old, who was not old enough for the military, was suffering from some form of PTSD. My whole ‘hood of South Shore probably was, too.

At that moment, I knew my 11-year-old, who was not old enough for the military, was suffering from some form of PTSD. My whole ‘hood of South Shore probably was, too.

Every day in neighborhoods across Chicago, children face astounding amounts of violence at school, home, and in the community. South Shore ranks high among Chicago communities besieged by gun violence, in a city that’s on pace to have the highest homicide rate in nearly 20 years, with more than 700 homicides and nearly 4,050 shooting victims so far this year. For some of these children, Lost Boyz Inc. provides a haven where challenges meet hope, confidence, and love to form a bright future through relationships bonded with trust and faith. We started in 2008 as an opportunity to provide organized baseball to a team of fifteen boys, ages 11 and 12. Today we are a 501(c)(3) sports-based youth development organization serving 90 boys and girls ages 4 to 24, with baseball and fastpitch softball as our core drivers.

In 2014, Chicago’s Lost Boyz Inc. extended its services to include girls. Photo courtesy of Lost Boyz Inc.

Lost Boyz uses Positive Youth Development theory and Developmental Systems Theory, with an emphasis on sports inclusion, which are designed to optimize developmental progress by engaging and educating youth in productive activities, as opposed to focusing on punishing or correcting negative behaviors. Developmental Systems Theory recognizes that youth are influenced by the interaction of the diverse environments they live within, such as community makeup, family and friend dynamics, school culture, mass media, and public policies. The number and quality of connections between settings are critical to their development through adolescence and into adulthood. By combining participation in team sports with tutoring, civic engagement activities, and professional development, Lost Boyz participants experience positive social relationships and outcomes that enhance their individual interests, skills, and abilities.

Our programs positively influence student learning and academic achievement using a multifaceted approach. Our under-16 student learning program, MVP, uses competitive league play, skills training, and physical conditioning. A significant body of research demonstrates that participation in team sports positively impacts brain function and critical learning, consistently showing a positive correlation with improved mental processes that can lead to academic achievement.

Our organization has directly observed the positive impact the combination of team sports and tutoring has had on participants’ learning and academic achievement. An independent evaluation by the University of Chicago showed that after one year in our MVP program, the average GPA of our participants increased by approximately .58 points (example would be an increase from a B- to a B average). We have also measured and tracked the impact of our MVP program internally through participant/tutor logs, attendance records, report cards, and parent/child feedback. Our Successful Youth Leaders, or SYL, program for youth 16 and over, directly enhances learning and academic achievement at a more advanced level. SYL participants are placed with professional mentors composed of qualified educators, business leaders, and industry experts, They receive real-world employment experience, specialized training, and academic support for secondary and postsecondary education.

“Impact” is a word that has sacred meaning to us. For us, impact is the lasting effect we have on children, each other, and our community in spite of violence and other circumstances. Kids from our programs are moving themselves from “at-risk,” “underserved,” and “disadvantaged” by using sports to decrease risk factors, increase protective factors, and participate in the economy. To date many of our kids are attending high school and college on academic scholarships, and paying it forward for the kids behind them. By removing the violence factor—as much as possible—we are helping to build not only stronger, smarter, faster athletes, but also healthier, accomplished, and responsible citizens.

LaVonté Stewart

Founder of Lost Boyz Inc.

LaVonté Stewart Sr. was born on Chicago’s South Side at Jackson Park Hospital. He graduated from Our Lady of Peace Elementary School, Hirsch Metropolitan High school, and Chicago State University, all on Chicago’s South Side. LaVonté earned his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science in 2004. Prior to that he attend Hampton University and was a member of the 1994 Sheridan Black National Championship Pirates football team as a defensive back. LaVonté started working closely with troubled youth through baseball, and formed Lost Boyz Baseball League, which eventually became known as Lost Boyz Inc. Recently, LaVonté completed his Masters in Public Administration at DePaul University. LaVonté works in the office Illinois State Senator Kwame Raoul, successor to former State Senator Barack Obama. He currently resides on the South Side with his fiancée and 3 children.