Ripple

How The Junior Giants Are Making Waves In Their Community

Across McCovey Cove from where the San Francisco Giants splash down their longest home runs, baseballs and shouts from kids launching their own splash hits fly over the fence of Barry Bonds Junior Giants Field. Unlike the waters directly behind AT&T Park, there are no kayakers here speeding to scoop up souvenirs — the ripples in the water from the balls the Junior Giants hit are left to linger.

But the impact of the Giants Community Fund’s Junior Giants program — the ripple effect it has — is impossible to measure.

You can consider the awards: Major League Baseball’s Commissioner’s Award for Philanthropic Excellence, ESPN’s Sports Humanitarian Team of the Year Award, and the Patterson Award, among many others.

Statistically, the baseball and character-education program for 5-to-18-year-olds — free (largely thanks to partnership from Bank of America), co-ed, non-competitive, and dedicated to underserved youth — has served more than 290,000 since its inception in 1994. Currently, 91 Junior Giants leagues from as far north as Medford, Oregon to as far south as Lompoc, California and east to Reno, Nevada serve 25,000 youth per year, according to Paul Giuliacci, Deputy Director.

Still, even the staunchest Sabermetrician knows that in baseball, as in life, statistics tell only part of the story. The rest of the story comes from these young student-athletes, and the committed, caring adults who run leagues that save lives.


Angel

On September 21, Salinas, California experienced its 32nd homicide of the year. That’s roughly six times the national average per 100,000 residents — a rate higher than Chicago’s.

Working to stem the tide is a 17-year veteran of the Salinas Police, Sergeant Angel Gonzalez, who doubles as executive director of the Salinas Police Athletic League, which means he triples as Commissioner of Salinas Junior Giants.

In his four years, participation has reached 1,100 youth, up from 200, playing on about 60 teams. During the eight weeks of Junior Giants season, held during the summer in order to complement the school year, all 1,100 benefit from the program’s character-education components, built around four “bases.” Those are: Confidence, Integrity, Leadership and Teamwork.

“The biggest value for us is community,” Gonzalez says. “We have kids from East Salinas, which can carry a stigma, and South Salinas and King City, all play together on our teams. That takes away the stigma of ‘Oh, that’s the bad side of town.’ It’s no longer ‘us and them.’ It’s just us — all of us.”

All gain exposure to lessons in health, education and bullying prevention. All, Gonzalez says, completed the 720 minutes of reading required to earn “home run” status in the Round the Bases Reading Program. Impressive stats, but again, still just stats.

“The biggest value for us is community,” Gonzalez says. “We have kids from East Salinas, which can carry a stigma, and South Salinas and King City, all play together on our teams. That takes away the stigma of ‘Oh, that’s the bad side of town.’ It’s no longer ‘us and them.’ It’s just us — all of us.”


Then there are individual stories, like the one about a promising player who fell in with the wrong crowd, “older kids who were a bad influence,” Gonzalez says, and quit the Junior Giants. His grades suffered, and he was suspended from school.

“His dad asked us to take him back in,” Gonzalez recalls. “We put him with a coach who became his mentor, and the kid is now on the honor roll and receiving citizenship awards from his school. His teachers call me with stories about his 180, now talking about college, doing community service. I believe most of that came from that coach pushing those four bases of character.”

Another story has Gonzalez speaking of a man in years of constant conflict with Salinas police officers, including him.

“He’d had a long history. He’d been incarcerated. We saw each other at the park, and I thought he wanted to fight me. He extended his hand, and I thought, ‘No, I’ve been here before.’ But we shook hands, and he said, ‘See that kid over there on first base? That’s my kid.’ He thanked me for keeping his son out of trouble and teaching his son that cops were not as bad as he’d been taught. If Junior Giants can help us reach a hardened criminal like that, we’re winning.”


A Home for the Homeless

A great strength of Junior Giants is inclusiveness. Many Commissioners report taking far-flung families from 30 or 40 miles away into their leagues. San Mateo Junior Giants Commissioner Lisa Totola-Joachim, whose operation also is run by the city’s Police Athletic League, turns nobody away.

“This year, about 10 percent of our families were homeless,” she says. “Those kids come to Junior Giants with a feeling of, ‘I belong.’ Even without a home, they get a feeling of being rooted and grounded. Lots of kids miss out on sports because their families can’t afford it, or they don’t have an address to write down on a registration form. But kids are so resilient; they show up smiling, anyway.”

One exception was a girl whose father “had left,” and whose mother was “facing legal issues” and living out of a car, Totola-Joachim recalls. “She was quiet, timid, afraid to interact. Because her dad had been in interactions with the police, she was afraid of us. But now she comes running up to us to give us hugs. Her mom says, ‘A summer without Junior Giants isn’t a summer.’ Running a league can be hard work, but that’s what gets us up in the morning.”


Veronica

An alumna of the Atwater Junior Giants, Veronica Ybarra soon will become an alumna of Santa Clara University with majors in communications, sociology, and women’s and gender studies, thanks in part to earning in 2008 a Harmon & Sue Burns Scholarship from Junior Giants. Veronica did not take the money and run. She coached in the league from 2008–2013 and served as an Ambassador in 2014–2015.

Her LinkedIn profile describes the role she took when not yet 20 years old:

“I planned and executed events for players and families, upwards of 1,500 people and monitored the entire Atwater League of 400 players. I ensured that the coaches were following the guidelines of the league and monitored every game. On various occasions, I publicly spoke to the entire league of players, parents, and coaches at once. At the end of the season, I collected survey data and reported back to San Francisco in a formal PowerPoint presentation.”

Throughout her time with Junior Giants, Veronica has taken different views of how the organization serves those in need. “I was underprivileged to an extent,” she says, “though I did have opportunities for education and never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from. I always felt very privileged and thankful, even though Atwater is mostly underserved. A lot of the players when I was an Ambassador were struggling and seemed not to know that anyone cared about them.”

“When I offered to help him, this little 9-year-old boy, he asked, ‘What’s the catch?’ A lot of kids feel like they’re being brought up in a world that is out to get them. He came and played and eventually moved on to competitive baseball.”

She recalls an instance when she saw a player sitting off to the side of Junior Giants activities. “I asked if he wanted to play, and he said he probably couldn’t because he was living with his grandparents as his guardians, and neither one of them could speak English or walk well enough to go and sign him up for anything. When I offered to help him, this little 9-year-old boy, he asked, ‘What’s the catch?’ A lot of kids feel like they’re being brought up in a world that is out to get them.

“He came and played and eventually moved on to competitive baseball. It was great to see a kid who started out sitting by himself late at night in tattered clothes then get a new Junior Giants shirt and hat and start having fun and a trusting relationship with his coach.”


Enabling the Less Able

For Junior Giants to achieve its mission, increasingly focused on preventing bullying, all forms of inclusiveness are necessary. Michael Clarke, a coach for Lodi Junior Giants, learned about that from a young player with physical disabilities that weakened his arms and left him unable to use a baseball glove.

“I really wanted this kid to not think about his disability,” Clarke says. “I wanted him to feel like just one of the kids. I didn’t want to give him a lot of extra attention, because the other kids would realize that, and then he’s no longer just one of the kids.”

The key, Clarke decided, was to get him a glove he could use. “In my mind, he had to have a glove. I wanted him to feel like he fits in.”

Clarke bought a glove, rigged it with extra straps and Velcro and gave it to the player. “His eyes got real big,” Clarke recalls. “I told him I wanted him to learn to catch a ball by the end of the year, and he did.”


Coaches and Players

Commissioner of Chico Junior Giants, Erin Gonzales, speaks of “baseball as a vessel” for life lessons that kids learn from coaches. “The Positive Coaching Alliance training we receive talks about better athletes and better people,” she says, “and that’s what Junior Giants is all about. For example: Teamwork in baseball can be equated to family.”

Gonzales sees all kinds of families. “One player right before a game had to say goodbye to her dad, because he was going to prison,” she recalls. “She came in very upset, throwing her glove around the dugout. But her team had an amazing coach, who used that game as an opportunity to refocus her. She played that game and gave it her all, got back to her old self and got over her anger that day.”

In other words, being a coach — or even a Commissioner — is about much more than helping to improve performance on the field. It’s about empathy.

“Being a Commissioner is hard at times, but every single time I go to the field for a day of play, I see so much energy and positivity out there. To see the kids’ smiles and see how much love the coaches put into it…my heart wants to burst.”


Kendee

It doesn’t take much to get Kendee Vance going. Just ask her about the 150 or so folks she serves through Los Molinos Junior Giants.

“Many of the kids are raised by custodial grandparents — three out of the 15 kids on my team last year. I had a kid on my team three years ago, who was in a gnarly living situation. Mom and dad were not fit, and grandma wanted custody. This little girl was in a shell, but three weeks into the season, she was improving, willing to try hitting off the pitching machine. Grandma wanted to talk to me, and I was like, ‘Oh, crap.’

“Grandma said that the counselor told her he’d never heard a 9-year-old explain integrity.”

“Grandma tells me that they go to counseling a couple times a week, and after the latest session, the counselor asked about Junior Giants and said, ‘Your granddaughter just talked to me for about 20 minutes about how she was learning integrity from the Junior Giants.’ Grandma said that the counselor told her he’d never heard a 9-year-old explain integrity.”

Soon, Vance is onto another player, the 9-year-old who won the league’s Willie Mac award, named for Giants legend Willie McCovey (as is the cove between the ballparks where we started).

“He did not run well or bat in a typical stance, but he showed unprecedented perseverance. I’ve never seen a kid so driven. He never gives up, even if it takes him 30 swings to hit a pitch, never says a negative word about anyone or anything, always a helping hand, carrying equipment. One day, I’m talking to his mom, and she mentions he has cerebral palsy. We talk more, and then he starts explaining why he loves Junior Giants: ‘Nobody bullies me here, and every day in school, I have to deal with that. I hate school.’”

To Vance, such situations are reminders: “You might be the best thing these kids see all week, and you better believe you have a responsibility to be a positive force in their lives. Junior Giants gives us everything we need for that. We want for nothing. They know they have to set us up for success, so our leagues can succeed, so we can see what incredible energy these kids bring to their communities.

“The kids get the black and white…the reading, the physical activity, staying engaged with their community and not checking out over the summer,” Vance says. “But the gray they get is exponentially more important. When you teach a 9-year-old what integrity means, the impact is not always visible, but when they take that home — when they take that into school, and into the community — there is a ripple.” ^DFG

Story by David Jacobson for UpMetrics’s blog, Data for Good. Photos courtesy of the Junior Giants. Contact us to learn more about how UpActive and UpMetrics can support your organization.


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