Chicago Westside Sports offers free youth baseball, life skills development

CHICAGO - Playing youth baseball can cost up to $714, a price tag many families can’t afford. Chicago Westside Sports is removing that barrier by offering kids a chance to play for free, along with a safe space to develop life skills.

"The reason I became a police officer was to effect change," said Ed Whitaker, a volunteer baseball coach with Chicago Westside Sports. "Growing up in the city of Chicago, I was able to see things that most people didn’t want to see. So now, being a police officer, it’s easier. I can manage the emotions of a younger person as it relates to sports and navigate that relationship with them."

Whitaker believes change can’t come without trust, which motivated him to join the program as a coach.

Community collaboration is key to the league's success. Over 700 kids have access to free Little League baseball in six different parks across the West Side. Each team has three coaches: one from a local church, another from a non-profit organization offering resources, and a law enforcement officer.

"The officers want deep relationships with the community," said Stephanie Marquardt, Executive Director of City of Refuge Chicago. "It’s difficult to find opportunities to build relationships naturally. We didn’t want the police to be security. We wanted them to be mentors. You become an officer because you care very deeply. It gives them a great opportunity to build relationships with the kids."

Many children in the league live in a food desert. Data from the Chicago Health Atlas shows 52% of people living in the East Garfield Park neighborhood have low access to food, meaning the closest grocery store is more than a half-mile away. This need is addressed by Meridian Health, which provides food for each child every Tuesday and Thursday at practice, and at games on Saturdays.

"Since we started feeding them, we don’t have any scientific data," said Marquardt. "But I have registration data of the same children that are hitting heights and weights that are natural. That wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have the partnership for the food. That’s huge. This is a food desert, and good nutritious food is hard to come by."

Baseball is a game built on failure and arguably produces more life lessons than any other major sport.

"Sometimes I’m nervous going up against big boys," said Amira Murray, one of several girls in the league. "But it feels encouraging for me that girls can do anything that boys can do. Even though some boys will probably look down on me because I’m a girl. It just gave me a lot of confidence."

Amira’s older brother, Jamari, also plays in the league. He has seen the positive impact this opportunity has made for kids in the neighborhood.

"This is encouraging, seeing all these young people not on the streets doing anything or getting into trouble," said Jamari. "This baseball community has helped a lot of children’s lives. They know that someone cares for them and that they have somewhere to be instead of on the streets."