Category Archives: In the Community

They’re All CHAMPS

Of course it was raining in Boston. It was June, after all, but that didn’t dampen the spirits of the several hundred kids who participated in “Cheers for Champs” event held last week at Fenway Park. In celebration of the very last days before his return to wage slavery, the Parent Imperfect invited the members of his team from the Regan Youth League. Six kids and two parents took me up on it, along with my coaching buddy, Eric. I had hoped that Connie might come with me, but her priority was a long-awaited ear piercing expedition with her Mom. For four of the six children who did come, it was their very first trip inside Fenway.

CHAMPS (Coaching Helps Athletes through Mentoring and Positive Sports) is a program of the Boston Foundation. The initiative sees sports as a place where young people can develop many life skills, if given a chance. The CHAMPS mission is “to ensure that every child in the city of Boston has access to high quality athletic opportunities—beyond school hours—including equipment and safe and clean fields, and that all youth coaches are of the highest quality and understand the fundamentals of youth development through sports.” With the Positive Coaching Alliance, CHAMPS offers a training for coaches in the Regan League. I’ve not made one of those yet, but I could definitely use it. Those who have gone have found the training to be very useful.

CHAMPS has also done this Fenway event in cooperation with the Red Sox for at least the last couple of years. As I looked at the kids who came with me and the crowd at the CHAMPS event, in general, I was reminded of a recent story on public radio by journalist Phil Martin called, “Making Fenway a Place for Everyone.” Martin did a good job explaining the sad history of the Red Sox on race issues and outlining what he sees as the efforts of the current ownership to change the image of the team in the city’s Black and Latino communities. The partnership with CHAMPS might be part of that effort.

It would certainly have been a different event on a clear, sunny day, but my kids had a great time. As soon as they got inside and picked up their CHAMPS t-shirts, they ran right in to Boston manager, Bobby Valentine, who took the time to speak to each of them and sign shirts, hats, gloves…whatever they wanted. Playworks, the same group that helps organize recess at Connie’s school was there, helping kids to burn off some nervous energy playing four squares.

We skipped the four squares and went outside to the right field grandstand. Not worried about the rain, we grabbed bags of snacks and went right down to the fence next to the visitor’s bullpen. The kids were in awe of a place that had only been on TV for most of them. They so much wanted to swing open the door and run out onto that field, but that was not part of the plan on such a muddy day…or any other day, probably.

Before getting completely soaked, we headed up the stairs to the sections under the roof where kids were gathering for the obligatory speeches. Boston is such a small city. The MC of the event was Robert Lewis, Executive Director of CHAMPS. Many years ago, Robert ran a small community gym I belonged to in Jamaica Plain called “Unique Physique.” Mine was (and is) certainly that. His boss also spoke, of course. I don’t know Paul Grogan, who is certainly among the city’s “movers and shakers.”  I do, however, remember very vividly a difficult interaction with him when I was the unfortunate coach of the team his son was assigned to in the Regan League. But that’s old news. Today, I’m glad that he sees the importance of CHAMPS and its work with coaches and kids.

Many fine speakers took the mike, including the coach of Boston College’s national championship hockey team, a star on the Boston Breakers women’s soccer team and the goalie of the New England Revolution. But it was the same Bobby Valentine who stole the show and moved up considerably in my esteem that day. He gave a short and to-the-point pep talk to coaches about the importance of helping kids overcome the fears they can feel related to sports. The words will stay with me as I fumble along through my own coaching career.

Above the concourse B, the Red Sox have organized a nice little museum highlighting the park’s unique history. There, TV legend Chet Curtis interviewed two of the kids and all of them got to stand right next to the team’s two World Series trophies.

As dusk gathered and the temperature dropped, it was time to head back through Gate B. Volunteers were at the exits trying to get us to take more snack bags. One kid took six of them, without hesitation. The weather had certainly kept down the expected crowd. Before we broke up, we took everyone’s picture together at the Ted Williams statue. The majority of the smiling kids didn’t know the first thing about The Splendid Splinter, but at least they had some idea of what it was like to be inside of Fenway Park and shake hands with the manager of the Red Sox. These kids are, indeed, all champs.

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Somebody Else’s Boys

This spring feels like one of those times of change for the Parent Imperfect, but one thing remains very consistent…his interest in that “kid’s game” involving balls, bats, gloves and long periods of being outside in all sorts of weather. I’ve been completely unsuccessful in passing this interest on to either Vince or Connie, but for some reason, I’ve kept involved in youth baseball, despite my family’s distance from it. The fact that my knees no longer allow me to play probably explains the affliction.

The Regan Youth League (RYL) gets several hundred boys and girls active in the spring and keeps a number of them going through the fall. A couple of adults derive some income from the league, and a larger group of mostly young people get paid to umpire, but the league moves on the backs of a large group of volunteers, mostly parents of the players. These people organize all that is necessary to make it possible for groups of about 25 children to come together regularly to play a game that some of them will continue to love for their entire lives.

Yesterday was Opening Day, when players, coaches and parents tie up Saturday morning traffic by parading down Centre St. in Jamaica Plain, and then gather at Daisy Field along the Jamiacaway for a little ceremony. Mayor Menino made it to the field with a big brace on his still-recovering leg to offer a few words of encouragement that few could repeat today. The ceremony ends with everyone making a community pledge in Spanish and English committing all coaches and players to “value the well-being of the children over the score of any game.” I’m not sure that we all live up to that pledge throughout the season, but the league is definitely less competitive than some other youth leagues in the Boston area.

This is one place where the “two Jamaica Plains” come together, in unusual harmony, with a broader community of people who value the kind of experience that the RYL offers Boston’s kids. It is neighborhood life in Boston as it is supposed to be.

As if to confirm that spring had, indeed, arrived, El rey del pastelito showed up with his coolers full of Dominican meat and cheese pies for sale. Even el rey is parent of a talented player who moved into the Pony division this year. In a half hour, famished kids and parents had emptied his coolers of their contents and sent him home a happy man.

Along with my friend, Eric, and parents of some of the players, I coach a team in the Senior Division, where boys, aged 11 and 12, play on eight teams. Our team of 11 (too few for my taste) includes boys from Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, Roslindale, Roxbury and Brookline. The team forms a group unlike the groups in which most of these boys live their lives in and around Boston. This league happens in Jamaica Plain, but it is not a Jamaica Plain league.

As non-parents coaching young boys, Eric and I have engendered some reasonable curiosity concerning our motives. By now, though, the league is used to us, and the few other people who coach without having children in the league. No chances are taken , however, as all coaches in the RYL fill out a CORI form each year before the season begins. A community of eyes monitor how adults interact with children throughout the season.

After the ceremony, the league gets down to the business of ball games. This year, our team played the very first game of the year. The gray clouds that had hung over the ceremony burned away as soon as the microphones went away, and, by game time, Daisy Field was bathed in brilliant sunshine. Parents and friends of both teams filled the bleachers and unfolded lawn chairs to cheer on the players. For the first game of the season, both teams played very well and with lots of enthusiasm. The game was not decided until our opponents’ left fielder made a circus catch of a hard-hit ball to send both teams home with a 4-4 tie. A tie? Baseball is a game that doesn’t have ties, but the Regan League is different even here. It seemed a fitting end to the opening game of a new season.

After leaving for the parade at 8AM, I crawled back into the house, exhausted, at about 3. Liz had just dropped Vince off at a friend’s house where he would, allegedly, complete a big Latin project. The fact that the Bruins were on TV at precisely that time had no effect on what the Latin scholars would be doing in J’s basement. Liz had spent much of her day trying to get him focused on the work he had not done during our week on vacation in Virginia. I’m sure it took some effort for her to be relatively cheery and interested in how my game had gone when I entered the house. This was only the first of many times over the next ten weeks when my fascination with seeing a group of somebody else’s boys come together as a baseball team means that Liz must shoulder more responsibility for our own team.

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Nice Hood

One of the good things about working in one’s home is that, when you just can’t stand to write another one of those ridiculous consulting sentences, you can get up and do something else. In my case, I’m working so close to the Arboretum that something else can mean a quick walk up Peters Hill.

That’s just what happened a couple of days ago, when I took a walk that I wasn’t prepared for. The moment I left the house, I knew that I wasn’t dressed for the weather. After reaching 88 the previous week, the temperature had dropped over 40 degrees and a cold wind whipped right through my flimsy sweatshirt. I would never go back into the house for something warmer, but I did immediately put up my hood for a little protection.

The view from the top of the hill was crystal-clear, but the wind pushed me back down very quickly. This was not a day to sit and take in the best view of downtown Boston. As I hurried back down the far side of the hill loop, past the first site of what is now Theodore Parker Church, I realized that I hadn’t seen a soul since I entered the park. The wind and cold had driven even the dog people inside.

My mind then wandered off as I came around by the apple orchard that will soon be in full bloom. I don’t know what I was thinking when I heard it. My little trance was broken by the sound of a shoe scraping on the asphalt in much the same way that I purposely scrape my foot on the ground as I walk up behind a lone person who I don’t want to startle with my approach. Instinctively, I turned toward the sound of the scrape and saw a single, young black man walking about ten yards behind me. Just as quickly I turned back, knowing only that he was approaching and that I didn’t think it was someone that I knew.

I have to admit that I didn’t just return to my daydream. I remember very clearly saying to myself, “This is not fear. I’m just aware of someone coming up behind me. I’m always aware of that.” I am always aware of that, but I’m quite sure that my already quick step got a bit quicker.

I could hear the young man walking behind me, but he did not catch up with me. I couldn’t help wondering what he was thinking, but didn’t want him to think that I was overly aware of him. Then, as I got to the fork in the road, he appeared in the corner of my eye, passing me on the right, but leaving space between us. I turned slightly to look at him as he passed. He wore wire-rimmed glasses (like mine, but nicer) and was carrying a shoulder bag, like a high school or college student on his way home from school. He didn’t turn to me, but did say something, more to himself than to me. It took a long second for it to sink in that he had said, “Nice hood.”

In another second, he was gone. He was headed toward the stone arch on South Street, just like me, but he chose to cut down the grassy hill, past the little patch of bamboo that the kids always try to pass through. For the first time in hundreds of walks past this place, I realized that his path was actually the most direct way out of the park.

We came together again, as we both reached the two stone steps down to the sidewalk. I slowed down for a bit so that we wouldn’t hit the stairs at the very same time. For some strange reason, I reached up and pulled off the hood. As he left the park, I looked at him hoping to catch his eye in order to say something stupid. He ignored me, and walked through the arch, up South Street.

Any parent of a teenage son (especially one who favors hoodies) who was not thinking about a young black man from Miami last week was not paying attention. I left the house on Tuesday afternoon not prepared for the cold, but even less prepared for a tiny non-conversation with a young man who was probably also thinking about what happens with hoodies.

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#Occupy Parenthood

After Wall Street, Boston was one of the first sites in the spread of the #Occupy movement. A small group of activists and their friends took up residence in Dewey Square as a voice of the “99%” angry about corporate greed…and the slightly smaller percentage who are ready to upset their lives to do something about it.

This bold action touched something in the deep, dark recesses of the Parent Imperfect’s experience, and he was drawn to find out more. While he’s not likely to pitch a tent in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston any time soon, he has made his way down there four times, first as a curious gawker and then as someone delivering so material aid and engaged with whatever happened to be going on at the moment.

On the night he was packing for the recent trip to London, he received a text imploring him to call the Mayor’s 24-hour help line to protest about a plan for the police to evict the occupiers. He made the call and got someone who answered his query with, “That’s a lie…where are you calling from?” It turned out that the police did come in and arrest a group of people who had attempted to expand the encampment, and the action was on the news in London when he arrived. In fact, many people the PI spoke to in England thankfully were much more interested in talking about #Occupy Boston than the recent collapse of the Red Sox. How could they not care about childish millionaires chomping chicken and chugging chilly ones in the clubhouse?

Each time he went down to the #Occupy site, he tried to get the rest of the family to accompany him. He noticed that there were more children around Dewey Square each time he went down. Liz would have liked to go, but, it was difficult for both parents to go unless they could organize a family entourage. Vince seemed to know what was happening, but didn’t show a lot of interest. The last time the PI asked him, Vince said, “I can’t go right now, but you know that C. and his brother are organizing a National Day Out of School at BLS and some kids are going to that occupy thing…Can I do that?” The absolutely mischievous look on Vince’s face made the PI smile, but that didn’t stop Parenthood from suddenly overcoming the occupier in the PI.

On one beautiful night in early October, Connie agreed that she would like to accompany the PI and their neighbor to see what this thing was all about. Since she is not one for the TV news, she had heard about #Occupy, but didn’t really know what to expect. She was a little overwhelmed at first with the occupiers, some of whom were a little scary to her. As she and the PI took a walk around the encampment, a few young women with lots of tatoos and piercings spoke to her and it was suddenly a much more interesting place.

As she and her father were handing in some clothing donations that they had brought with (Connie got a kick out of the fact that someone immediately put on one of the jackets they brought), Connie became fixated on a scene near the next table.  A young man had come up to a literature table thrown up by a local lefty group and begun asking people questions about what they were really doing. The man seemed to think that there were plenty of things wrong with the U.S., but didn’t see putting up tents in Dewey Square as the way to make anything change for the better. The debate became louder–but not really angrier–and a crowd gathered. A young guy who saw Connie trying to get a look, stepped back and let her get very close to the table. For at least ten minutes, she was transfixed, not even noticing that her father was quite a distance away from her.

By coincidence, Connie and the PI saw the man who had asked the questions on the Orange Line as they headed home. Connie recognized him before the PI did. That gave the PI the perfect opportunity to ask what had interested her about the conversation.

“I didn’t understand all that they were saying, but I liked how everyone listened to him and answered him back without getting angry. It was fun to watch.”

Between homework and the general over-scheduling of her life (piano, gymnastics, ballet and being a Junior Coach at school), it’s not easy to find a time when Connie and any other member of the family can get downtown to support #Occupy Boston. Connie, however, is ready to go again. The PI asked if she had talked about her trip to #Occupy with the kids at school.

“No…most of them wouldn’t really understand. They already think I’m weird enough.” Maybe that’s what the PI gets for sending to the Junior Coach potluck with organic cookies.  No matter, the next trip to #Occupy Boston will be a family affair.

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