Rising from the Ashes: How the Community Focus of Beyond the Ball Changes Lives in Chicago

When Beyond the Ball founders Rob and Amy Castañeda first launched their efforts to build community in Little Village, gang members tried to burn down their house. Now, some of those same gang members have children participating in Beyond the Ball programs.

1998. Rob and Amy Castañeda have just moved into their new home, in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, on a block struggling with gang activity and violence. Wanting to help the community, Rob speaks with police about a crime he witnessed. Shortly thereafter, arsonists try to burn down their house.

And then it happens a second time.

Finally, a bottle comes crashing through the window in the night.

“We’re going to kill you mother#$%@er!”

They were new to the neighborhood. These problems—gangs, threats, violence—were not. Most people would have left.

They didn’t.

“I grew up in Chicago, and I’ve always played sports,” says Amy Castañeda. “My dad was integral in that—he was a little league coach. My mom was very much a volunteer in the neighborhood—either volunteering at church, or school. For me, living in this city was always what I wanted.

“When we moved into our new home, the reason we chose Little Village was that I had just taken a teaching position. I had always told my husband [Rob] that wherever I teach, that’s where I want to live, because I want to know the kids; I want to be around them, and in the community.”

Still, it wasn’t a simple decision to stay.

“We wanted to stay in Chicago, but we didn’t know if it were safe to stay where we were, for obvious reasons. But, one of the things that happened—I was a coach for the girls basketball team at my school at that time, and they came over to our house one night. They were really upset that all of this was happening to us, and gave us words of encouragement—Rob and I realized, if we left, we wouldn’t be part of this anymore.

She continues: “I don’t even know how they got there—a parent must have brought them in a van, or something. But it was just really eye-opening, the fact that if we left, we wouldn’t be a part of this community anymore. We could visit—but living there really made the difference.”

Two fires.

A bottle through the window.

Death threats.

A team visit from the girls Amy was coaching.

The decision was made.

“It was kind of easy after that. We understood that the kids really wanted us there. And we needed to dedicate ourselves to them.”

Beyond the Ball began as a boys basketball program at the school where Amy was teaching.

“At the outset, we geared things totally toward boys, because in our neighborhood, a lot of the violence and problems were associated with young men.”

It’s no secret that Chicago has struggled with violent crime recently. Little Village, which is located in South Lawndale, is just to the south of the third most dangerous neighborhood in Chicago (North Lawndale) in terms of violent crime, according to the Chicago Tribune data from June and July, 2017.

Rather amazingly, despite this proximity, South Lawndale ranked 38th among Chicago’s 77 community areas for violent crime across that same time period, and is down 20% year-over-year.

In cooperation with the school administration, Amy and Rob built programming for the community that would help keep at-risk kids off the streets, and in a positive environment, learning the lessons about teamwork and time management that are so important in sports. It worked, and soon there were multiple teams, including kids from outside the school community, who were involved.

Then, once the community began to really engage with their program, they saw more and more families and younger children—it became obvious that programming specific to girls would be necessary as well. This gave rise to their 28.5 and Bitty Ball (for young children) programs, as well as their BTB Girls program, which have grown ever since.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“One of the things in Chicago is that schools, they’re usually public spaces for kids to come learn during the day,” Castañeda explains. “Now, there are different kinds of principals: Some principals look at themselves as protectors of the spaces, and some principals have a broader view, and try to make sure that the whole community can take full advantage of the facilities and resources.”

The first principal with whom Castañeda had worked had been of the latter variety. But upon his retirement, he was replaced by a new principal who didn’t see the broader community approach of Beyond the Ball as beneficial for the school. They had no choice but to look elsewhere for facilities.

“There are two mindsets [for principals] there. It really does affect how space is used in communities. And it’s sad, because a lot of times these people making these decisions don’t live in the neighborhood—they’re in and out, but we’re always here. So they might leave, and someone else takes over, and it changes our lives completely.”

Since then, Beyond the Ball has continued to partner with local schools where possible, and extended their programming to public spaces (parks, basketball courts, etc.).

“We now use public play spaces as often as possible and are always working to create more safe, accessible play spaces,” says Jackie Covarrubias, the program’s Managing Director.

“We had to start learning about how we could help people who were coming in understand how much we, as a community, rely on these spaces,” Castañeda says, echoing Covarrubias. “Kids’ lives depend on these spaces.”

In our Bitty Ball program, the participation was about 50% boys, 50% girls,” says Castañeda. “Everyone would just come and play. But then we started noticing once they were in fourth and fifth grade that girls’ participation started declining in sports.

“We were trying to figure out why that was happening. Was it that they weren’t interested anymore? Was it that they were taking on more responsibility at home—that they were getting old enough to take care of brothers and sisters?”

While those issues may have played a role, another thing that Castañeda noticed was that if the girls didn’t have that much experience with certain sports, then they wouldn’t want to try to keep up with the others who had been playing for a long time.

“With the girls, what we started to do was offer multi-sport programming, so that they could get more experience with a variety of sports, and get more comfortable.

“We also realized that for girls—and for boys, too, but even more so for girls—a big part of playing was about the relationships that they formed with other girls that made them want to come back.”

Building on that, Castañeda says that they began to add non-sports programming that would be focused on an activity, like an art project, allowing the girls to have informal social interaction with one another without the awkwardness that can come from simply sitting in a circle and talking.

“Half the girls would be in the gym, learning a sport, learning the rules, learning how to play with the other girls, and then in the lunch room the other half would be doing projects together, sitting down and talking to friends or meeting new people. It was really kind of just organic.”

Soon, they also began having themed discussions, on issues like health (particularly relating to women’s health), and issues that they might be having in school.

“When you make things, like art projects or those kinds of things, you sit around a table and you just start talking. For us, we found that to be a way that girls were more receptive to being open and sharing.

I started with the program in 2014—I would come in on Fridays, and help out the head coach of the BTB Girls program,” says Covarrubias, who is also an alumna of Up2Us Sports’ coaching program.

(In addition to Covarrubias, Up2Us Sports has supported six female coaches over six years as they work to engage more girls in Little Village.)

“So, [the head coach and I] would come up with ideas together, and develop a curriculum for young girls to get more engaged in sports, but also to develop their skill as leaders, and just as good people in their community who want to give back.”

In building that curriculum, Covarrubias and her colleagues anticipated that they would encounter not just inexperience, but something of a cultural resistance to the idea of girls participating in sports.

“One of the biggest challenges for us that we had in mind from the beginning—and even for us, growing up Latina on the Southwest side of Chicago—is that sometimes the culture really butts heads with trying to train and develop strong females,” Covarrubias explains. “Sometimes, the cultural expectations are that you cater to the guys, or that girls shouldn’t do this, or that girls should do that, but only that.

“So I think one of the biggest challenges is definitely culture. It’s one thing to instill what we are teaching in the kids, to want to go out and try new things, but it’s a completely different thing to try to get that across to a parent—that it’s okay for girls to be doing these things; that girls can do things outside of these cultural roles we’ve created.”

In light of that, Covarrubias says that a key factor for their success has been that Beyond the Ball emphasizes not just youth engagement, but also community building.

“The relationships that we have with the youth are immediately tied to relationships that we build with the parents,” says Covarrubias.

That means family members are often involved and on site. “They know us really well, so they’ll be here for our programming.”

While the BTB Girls program runs during the school year, Beyond the Ball has summer programming that is for the whole family.

“It’s about building those connections with the moms and dads, but also about showing them through our own actions—living our own lives in a way that is going to be a positive example for them. Because it’s fair for them to ask, okay, they’re teaching my kid this, but what are they doing with their lives?”

Again, it comes back to being there in the community.

“We like to think of it as being a coach 24/7. When you live in the community that you coach in, the kids are going to see you, the parents are going to see you all the time—at the grocery store, etc. So it’s really about being aware of that and cultivating that.”

That’s why Beyond the Ball as a true grassroots effort—through the early issues, and even threats posed by the very community that they serve, the Beyond the Ball founders and coaches are totally invested in being present.

It’s not a commuter solution.

“When they see you as a person, and not just as a coach, they immediately see you as more relatable. They know you understand their challenges. And that goes a long way.”

Those bonds are strengthened as they grow, and the older girls in the program are also trained to take on responsibility welcoming and coaching new students — passing on the same values and lessons to the next generation.

“The older girls will have the opportunity to coach for the younger girls, so they have the chance to apply the same lessons that they learned. They also vote for team captains, so they have to put thought into what leadership means, and what it is that they look for in a leader.”

Imagine a place for young girls in one of Chicago’s most underserved areas where they need look no further for an example of female leadership than at their teammate, or coach, standing next to them.

Imagine that, and you’ll begin to understand the real impact of Beyond the Ball. ^DFG

About this story:

Story by Bryan Kitch, for UpMetrics Data for Good, as part of Up2Us Sports’ #SheCanCoach campaign. Photos courtesy of Beyond the Ball unless otherwise noted.

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Learn more about Up2Us Sports’ #SheCanCoach campaign:

Up2Us Sports is launching She Can Coach — a fundraising and awareness campaign focused on the importance of growing opportunities for women to coach and ensuring young girls in vulnerable communities have great female role models in their lives.

Research from the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports proves that girls drop out of sports at a higher rate than boys and that girls’ participation is strongly correlated with female role models.