Baseball used as a tool to help define youth

Q: I volunteered for the Empty Stocking Fund earlier this year and saw a group of kids from L.E.A.D. there. Would you tell me about this program?

A: You’re inquiring about the year-round program for inner-city boys that attend Atlanta Public Schools known as L.E.A.D. (Launch/Expose/Advise/Direct). Their mission is to help the students navigate away from crime, impoverishment and racial prejudice, with baseball as the cornerstone.

Growing up, C. J. Stewart and his grandfather spent a lot of time watching the Cubs in the day and the Braves at night, said C. J.’s wife, Kelli Stewart. “He saw himself in the game through the players that were there at the time,” she added.

The former Chicago Cubs outfielder had a “convicting” moment. “A conversation that turned to the declining number of African Americans in baseball about the same time of the year as Jackie Robinson Day,” said Kelli. “The client basically said, ‘You’re up here in East Cobb working with middle and upper-class white kids. What are you doing for the kids who come from the community that you came from’?”

The question Kelli described as “piercing” had a ripple effect that led the couple to start L.E.A.D. in 2007. From the summer program that began with 18 families, it now serves 250 kids yearly and has evolved into three programs: junior ambassador, legacy league and ambassador are offered to middle and high school underperformers.

Working with APS and counselors they scout those who are written off due to poor grades, attendance and behavior.

The program is comprised of four pillars: athletics (baseball), academics, civic engagement and commerce. “Our focus is through life lessons and SEL capacity that help them navigate not just life on the diamond, but life in the real world, the classroom and community,” said the co-founder, executive director of The L.E.A.D. Center for Youth, L.E.A.D.

The sport-based youth development organization removes barriers, offers experiences, respect, trust and the benefit of the doubt, she said.

Kelli said, “We have six core values that we use the sport of baseball and games in how we practice, play and compete to teach those core values. The hook is we provide access to that type of opportunity .... The currency is that they have to give us improvement among grades, attendance, behavior and community service. We want to help them create a life that is successful, sustainable ... to become major league citizens.”

Address: L.E.A.D. Center for Youth, 680 Murphy Ave. SW, Suite 4128, Atlanta

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