Grantee Spotlight: Youth
Little league baseball had been absent from Flint’s neighborhoods for more than a generation when Ronnie Russell and other alumni of Flint Northern High School intervened.
For this group of dedicated adults, forming the Jackson Park Youth League was – and still is today – about more than just the sport of baseball. It’s about giving young people the inspiration and the tools and the motivation to rise up and achieve more.
“I was a kid too once,” said Russell, who is one of 15 people committed to the park and the league. “It’s important for us to reach back. Someone was there for me and we’re going to be there for them.”
Born in 2016 out of a true grassroots effort, the program has grown to serve more than 100 youth ages 4 to 12 and incorporates mentoring, leadership skills development, and park maintenance.
To understand the growth and success of the Jackson Park Youth Baseball League, one first has to understand the story of Jackson Park.
Just over a decade ago, Hardenbrook Park (fondly known by local residents as Jackson Park since it is located on Jackson Avenue), was closed. The grass grew to be waist high, and it was not maintained on any regular basis.
That’s when a group of alumni of Flint Northern’s class of 1974 adopted it and began holding annual events.
“When we walked in, we almost walked back out. It was that bad,” Russell said. “But we stayed.”
The group began maintaining it all summer long with the help of Keep Genesee County Beautiful (KGCB), funded by the Ruth Mott Foundation. KGCB eventually granted $40,000 for a pavilion and the group received $25,000 from Lowe’s for a baseball field.
Russell credits the hardworking group of alumni and others who have been there from the beginning for ensuring the program is a success and the park is maintained for the neighborhood.
“Their commitment and their passion for this work is inspiring,” he said. “This wouldn’t happen without them.”
In a pivotal move for the program, one of Russell’s fellow alumni wrote to Major League Baseball about their efforts. Much to their surprise, Flint was selected for the MLB’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, a youth initiative designed to provide young people from underserved and diverse communities the opportunity to play baseball and softball.
The Ruth Mott Foundation in 2017 granted $7,500 to the program, with the United Way of Genesee County as fiscal sponsor, followed by $26,300 in 2018.
The league uses the game of baseball to support positive social and emotional development among youth participants. It conveys teamwork while helping youth build self-confidence by learning new skills and receiving the support of caregivers, coaches and mentors.
In addition to the benefits for the youth who participate, the program has created a safe and inviting environment in north Flint that encourages youth to be actively connected to local parks. In alignment with the Imagine Flint Master Plan, this type of youth programming provides an opportunity for leadership development while also reviving public space back into productive use.
“Open space and parks are critical components of urban life,” the Master Plan says. “They provide opportunities for passive and active recreation, access to nature, enhanced air and water quality, and help define the character of each neighborhood and community as a whole.”
The Jackson Park Youth League aligns with the Ruth Mott Foundation’s theory of change for north Flint with its focus on outcomes that lead to improved self-perceptions for youth in the areas of behavioral conduct, global self-worth and increased caregiver participation. The program works to achieve these outcomes by gaining buy-in from both youth and adults who observe positive leadership behaviors and model those behaviors in every aspect of the program.
The league believes that through early exposure to positive role models, children will embrace the values learned and reinforced throughout the program and convey those values at home and in school.
At its annual Play Ball event put on by MLB, then-Flint Mayor Karen Weaver acknowledged the league goes beyond sports.
“Not only are they learning about baseball, but they are making friendships and just having fun,” she said in a video produced by MLB.
Tony Reagins, executive vice president of baseball and softball development for MLB, said the organization is “excited” to be able to bring the RBI program to Flint.
“We want to give young people, no matter where they come from, an opportunity to play our game,” he said. “An event like today is just the beginning of us being engaged with Flint for many years to come.”