For more than a decade, Stewart, 44, and his wife have been using the appeal of baseball to try to mold troubled black boys in Atlanta into productive and community-minded citizens.
“We take those boys that people would rather leave behind,” Stewart said. “We take the kids they shove in the back room and don’t want anybody to see.”
Stewart said he could easily have been one of those cast-offs.
Born when his mother was 16 and raised poor in the inner-city housing project Hollywood Brooks, Stewart displayed a talent for baseball as a student at Atlanta’s Westlake High School. He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1994 but did not immediately sign with them. Instead, he played one year each at Georgia State University and Georgia Perimeter College, formerly DeKalb Junior College.
By his own admission, he flunked out of both colleges. The Cubs drafted him again in 1996, and he played for two years in the Cub’s minor league farm system.
For the past 20 years, Stewart has worked as a paid baseball instructor, polishing the games of major leaguers Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler, and others through his company, Diamond Directors.
He said he was inspired to start the nonprofit LEAD, which stands for launch, expose, advise and direct, after a client’s eye-opening observation: Stewart was focusing on helping whites in the suburbs. But what was he doing for the city’s troubled, young black boys?
In partnership with Atlanta Public Schools, LEAD offers African American boys in grades 6 to 12 a chance to play baseball, possibly even one day to be a part of an all-expenses-paid travel team that would normally cost each player’s families about $8,000 to $10,000 a year.
The program is intense and includes lessons far beyond the skills needed for the playing field. For instance, in the first semester of each year of middle school, participants in LEAD meet an hour each week for training on the core values of excellence, humility, integrity, loyalty, stewardship and teamwork. They also must show their commitment through attendance and with improved behavior and grades at school. Those who succeed are given a chance to wear the jersey of their school and compete in LEAD’s middle school baseball league in the spring.
The high school members are expected to mentor and coach the middle schoolers, and all LEAD members are required to regularly participate in community projects.
“We don’t have the luxury of having sports for the sake of recreation. It has to be for something bigger than that,” said Kelli Stewart, the nonprofit’s chief operating officer. “When you are born black and poor in Atlanta, the deck is heavily stacked against you.”
A talent for baseball is not what is important.
“We aren’t just about winning trophies,” she said. “We are about helping our boys win at the game of life. We’re taking boys who are considered lost causes and giving them hope, teaching them core values and helping them chart a path out of poverty.”
A few thousand children have been involved in the program over the years, and about 350 participate annually in one of LEAD’s three programs: Middle School Character Development League, the Legacy (fall baseball) League, and the Ambassador Program.
Charles Brooks and hundreds of others succeeded in becoming ambassadors, the program’s highest achievement. Only 68 have graduated from the ambassadors’ program due to a variety of factors, including the transient nature of families living in poverty, Kelli Stewart said. Of the graduates, 93% have been awarded scholarships and 90% have enrolled in college, she said.
Were it not for LEAD, ambassador Charles Brooks said he doesn’t think he would have stayed in school.
“They gave me a set of core values, and I took that to heart,” he said.
LEAD alumnus Gensen Scott also said the program changed his life.
“Words cannot even explain what I’ve gotten from it … a lot of core values, a lot of connections with people, a lot of things that make me the person I am today,” said Scott, who graduated from Martin Luther King High School in 2010 and co-owns the catering service Georgia Express Meals.
WHAT INSPIRES C.J. STEWART?
Working alongside wife Kelli, C.J. Stewart created the nonprofit LEAD. The couple’s goal is to help at-risk teens living in Atlanta’s inner-city through baseball.
On her husband's life and work with young, troubled black teens, Kelli Stewart says: "C.J. still carved out a great life for himself as a citizen and philanthropist. And that's the message to our boys. You don't have to be an academic-off-the-chart to do great things for yourself and your community."
L.E.A.D's Ambassador's Pledge: "I am proud to be a creation of God. I am thankful for this opportunity to be a L.E.A.D. Ambassador. I am my brother's keeper and together we will achieve greatness."
HELP US INSPIRE ATLANTA
We recognize a big part of our journalistic mission is to shine a spotlight on wrongdoings and to hold our public officials accountable.
But we also understand the importance of celebrating our region’s moments, milestones and people. That’s exactly what we hope to accomplish with Inspire Atlanta.
Each week, Inspire Atlanta will profile a person who makes metro Atlanta a better place in which to live.
Of course, we can’t do this alone:We need your help in finding extraordinary people and identifying inspiring stories across our region. We learned about C.J. Stewart and the nonprofit LEAD from Mercedes-Benz USA. The automaker has recognized LEAD through its “Greatness Lives Here”initiative.
Know someone who inspires you or makes metro Atlanta a better place for others? Email us at AJC-InspireAtlanta@ajc.com.