Over the past year, Vernard Kennedy, 17, has grown more comfortable with Atlanta police officers serving his southwest Atlanta neighborhood, one of the most poverty- and crime-ridden swaths of the city. He’s more at ease with their presence, more likely to strike up a conversation with local officers in navy blue uniforms.
It all started with a baseball game.
Vernard was part of a team with more than 20 teenage boys living in poverty-stricken areas of Atlanta, including neighborhoods just west or east of downtown Atlanta. Their opponent? A team of Atlanta police officers.
The baseball game was the brainchild of Brad Jubin of Tyrone. Jubin is not black. He is a not a police officer. But at a time when police shootings and simmering tensions between police officers and black residents dominate headlines, Jubin, a motivational speaker, couldn’t stand on the sidelines. Compelled to make a difference, he proposed an idea for a game that took place last August and was called “Safe at Home Game.”
The special baseball game, which is free and open to the public, will take place again this year on Saturday at Georgia Tech. (See box for more details.)
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“I was glad when I was asked to play. I felt like with a lot of things going on with police and black males, that if we could build relationships, it would help,” said Vernard.
And after the 7 innings-long, self-officiated friendly competition came to a close, Vernard, who is a senior at Carver High School, said the experience “changed the way he viewed police officers.”
“I feel like a lot of the police I played with, that I can have a conversation with them,” he said. “When I see them in my neighborhood, I am more comfortable approaching them. We have a good relationship. We can talk and we have common interests like baseball.”
He went on to say, “There are bad cops and there are good cops, and when we were with them, I just feel like they are regular people.”
Meanwhile, Atlanta Police Department Lt. James Hodge said while he wasn’t sure what to expect when playing in the game last year, he ended up being “blown away” by the experience.
“You kind of have to put this mask on, you have a job to do and this totally turns it upside down and you see people as individuals. It allowed us to build a rapport,” said Hodge, a longtime baseball player who will likely pitch in Saturday’s game.
The inspiration for the Safe at Home Game all started a couple of years ago when Jubin spoke to 60 high schoolers at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta to talk about “becoming the person you are supposed to be” and perhaps even becoming the person who one day cures childhood cancer. After delivering his talk, Jubin, who co-founded APIVEO (Always Play 4 (IV) Each Other), a nonprofit that uses sports as a vehicle to teach kids about strong leadership and character, remained at the school to watch high schoolers play a baseball game.
Jubin admitted to at first being scared for his safety when he pulled into the parking lot. His perspective changed while watching a group of high schoolers compete in a self-officiated baseball game.
“I was in inner-city Atlanta. I was walking over to a field full of black kids, and based on the neighborhood I was in, I was uncomfortable, to say the least,” said Jubin, who brought his son Christian along for the trip. “But what I witnessed on that field was the greatest display of respect I had ever seen in the last place I thought I would see it. When we left, as I walked to the car, I was a different person. I was no longer scared. I was inspired.”
Jubin was struck by how the kids played such a spirited but respectful game of baseball — without any umpires to settle disagreements. What he witnessed didn’t match the narrative he was seeing on the news about young black men and women violently clashing with police officers in cities across the country.
What he saw was an opportunity — a way for teenage boys to play a self-officiated baseball game against the police officers who patrol their communities. He was confident if they spent time together playing baseball — playing, competing, laughing, talking on a late summer afternoon — they could come together to change the dynamic, improve relationships, and perhaps even change lives.
Jubin first contacted C.J. Stewart, the coach of the team and the head of the larger group of players who are called “ambassadors,” and part of L.E.A.D. program (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct) designed to encourage and support high school boys in the poorest areas of Atlanta with some of the highest high school dropout rates to not only excel in the game of baseball but also in academics, ultimately helping these youngsters to go to college.
Stewart loved the idea. Together, Jubin and Stewart reached out to the Atlanta Police Department. Support for the game was immediate, and they teamed up to make the game happen. (The kids won the game 11-7.) Since the game, the players and officers participated in a scrimmage and a community picnic, and they’ve been recognized at Turner Field.
Vernard, a senior in high school who plans to attend Kennesaw State University next year, said he is looking forward to playing in the game Saturday.
“I think this is a great idea,” he said. “Too many people are blaming others about what is going on and not doing anything to help.”