How A Baseball Field Became A Home
Written By: Eugene Chow
For Jonathan de Leon, 27, the afterschool program he grew up attending always felt like a second home, and through a serendipitous chain of events it has become a literal home.
One fateful decision to play catch on a dusty baseball diamond on East 100th street would start a two-decade journey that would eventually lead to a home for his wife and child.
When Jonathan was 9 years old, he started playing baseball as part of Harlem RBI’s afterschool program. As he grew, so did Harlem RBI.
From an overgrown field, Harlem RBI has expanded, with the help of Robin Hood, to include a charter school, an 88-unit affordable housing development, college access and support, counseling, and more.
Even with its incredible growth, Harlem RBI never strayed from its core mission of helping children like Jonathan.
An only child raised by a single mother in East Harlem, Jonathan had few role models growing up.
When he was 3 years old, his parents split and his mother was forced to work two jobs to put food on the table. Between shifts at a bakery and a shipping company, she had little time to spend with her son.
As a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republican who spoke no English, his mother was unfamiliar with how to navigate the New York City school system or how to support Jonathan academically.
“I had to get guidance and direction from other avenues. I couldn’t get it from my mother because she just didn’t have the ability at that time,” Jonathan recalled.
His life trajectory changed when his babysitter took him to a nearby field to play catch. There they were approached by a volunteer with Harlem RBI who told them about their afterschool baseball program.
With no prior interest in sports or exposure to extracurricular activities, Jonathan took a chance and joined one of Harlem RBI’s baseball teams. For the first time, he was surrounded by kids his age as well as positive role models in a safe, nurturing environment after school and in the summer.
Jonathan credits that moment with changing his life.
“Who knows where I would be if it weren’t for Harlem RBI,” he said. “There was a lot of poverty which led to a lot of crime and terrible influences all around you. There weren’t a lot of places in the community where you could go to as a home or a secondary home for development.”
More than just a safe place, Harlem RBI was a space where Jonathan had the opportunity to flourish, become a leader, and realize his potential.
Harlem RBI supported Jonathan at every step, providing him and his teammates with reading and math lessons, summer tutoring, help choosing high schools, counseling, and mentorship.
Jonathan credits one coach, Peter Daneker, with helping him become the man he is today.
A talented player, Jonathan quickly distinguished himself as one of his team’s best, but at times he could be hot-headed, arguing with his fellow teammates.
When he was a teenager, Jonathan vividly recalls the moment Peter pulled him aside and told him that his teammates looked up to him and that he needed to start setting an example with his actions.
The talk had a profound impact on Jonathan.
“I like to think that today I carry myself in the way that Peter had envisioned for me,” Jonathan recalls.
After graduating high school, Jonathan received a scholarship to attend Herkimer County Community College where he earned a degree in Business Management and interned at several financial firms.
During summers between college, he volunteered at Harlem RBI as a baseball coach and mentor, sharing the lessons he learned with young boys and girls from East Harlem while playing on that same field.
After graduating, he got a job at the Long Island Business Institute where he quickly climbed the ranks. He is now the supervisor of the Academic Success Center where he oversees tutors and counselors advising students on academic and professional matters.
Between volunteering and working, he found time to get married and start a family with his long-time sweetheart in the Dominican Republic.
Everything was going smoothly until it came time for his wife and 3-year-old daughter to join him in New York. Sadly, like too many New Yorkers, he was faced with the harsh reality of being priced out of the neighborhood he had called home all his life. He couldn’t afford to move into a space large enough for his growing family and would be forced to leave his family, friends, and community.
Fortunately for Jonathan, Harlem RBI was in the midst of transforming an underutilized NYCHA parking lot just blocks from his childhood home into a charter school for local residents, a beautiful new public park, and an 88-unit, 100% affordable housing development.
Jonathan applied for a two bedroom and was selected in a random lottery. He was overjoyed. The affordable unit meant that he could stay in the community and raise his family just two blocks from his mother.
In an incredible twist of fate, he bumped into Harlem RBI’s Executive Director Richard Berlin, who has known Jonathan since he was a young baseball player, and in the course of conversation discovered that he lives directly above Richard’s office. He jokingly asked Richard for his office hours so he knows when to be extra quiet.
“I remember getting called into his office when I was growing up, not always for good things,” Jonathan said with a laugh.
These days, he’s less concerned about getting called into Richard’s office and more interested in his daughter’s future. Living above Harlem RBI’s Dream charter school, Jonathan is reassured knowing she is just a steps away from a great school and transformative after-school programs. More importantly, she won’t have to struggle as he did.
“Now that I have a daughter, I can share my experiences with her and guide her in life.”
Photography: Alberto Reyes