LaVonte Stewart is not shy about his criminal record, which could “stretch across the street.” It is his past which makes his message so powerful. He is the leader of the Lost Boyz, a sports-based youth development program on Chicago’s South Shore. Students come to the Lost Boyz to play baseball and fast pitch softball, but learn far more than how to throw or swing. When you are one of the Lost Boyz, you grow as a human being. It is not where you begin that defines you, LaVonte suggests, but how you develop, and how you positively affect the world.
We first met LaVonte at the Lost Boyz headquarters and immediately respected his mission and approach. He aims for “raw, real conversations” that are missing from so many educational environments. For LaVonte, sports are the hook. Once he’s hooked you, the education begins, with civic engagement, academic preparation, cultural enrichment, and service learning at its core. Relationship building is equally important to LaVonte and his staff, since “many of the kids we engage with have toxic relationships in their lives.” The Lost Boyz do more than expose their students to positive relationships. They are also exposed to other cultures, taken “out of the homogenous area they’re in to learn about other types of people.” Exposure to new ideas adds depth to one’s thinking. It also helps develop a skill set which, once students graduate into the working world, helps people engage in respectful, productive collaboration. An important ability, since “Chicago is the one of the most segregated cities in the world.” LaVonte hopes to bridge that gap.
Service learning is another important aspect of the Lost Boyz curriculum, contributing to a deepening sense of extended community. They serve a dual purpose, as the projects also empower those reaching out, bringing young people a sense of accomplishment, “instead of always being on the receiving end of service efforts.” LaVonte looks for mutually enhancing relationships, especially since he sees Chicagoans, regardless of which side of the city they are from, as an incredibly loyal bunch. That can be good and bad since fierce loyalty can keep communities homogenous. “We don’t venture out like we should,” he says.
LaVonte has taken it upon himself to solve issues which he believes have been sensationalized, though it has not always been an easy task. There were times when he and his family had to be on food stamps before the non-profit took off. He kept a dream of helping his community in sight, and passion kept him moving incrementally forward. He knows the importance of his work. He has seen the positive effects of it, and felt the heartbreak when members of his community fell victim to violence and lives of crime. The rampant level of sensational media has not helped – perhaps most obviously in the portrayal of police violence against people of color. As he notes, we are all aware that the problem exists, the question is, what are we going to do about it?
Beyond the Badge is one of the powerful strategies used by LaVonte and his team. We stopped by this summer when the Lost Boyz hosted an event to demonstrate community appreciation for third and fourth district Chicago police. The event featured barbeque, music, and a softball game where a team of officers took on a team from the community. At one point during the day, there was an exchange of gifts: athletes gave gift bags to the officers, and the officers pinned badges on their uniforms. There were hugs, handshakes, and laughs. The event was the culmination of the year’s efforts, which included workshops at Lost Boyz headquarters where police and students engaged in some of those “raw, real conversations.” There were tense moments, but all sides came out feeling like they understood each other better. In a world of prejudice and knee-jerk reaction, these sessions were allowing each side to paint a more complete picture of the other. Without further prompting from LaVonte, those police-student relationships continued. Members of the department often checked in on students, bringing school supplies and words of encouragement. Many of those relationships continue to this day.
LaVonte’s positive approach comes somewhat in response to “so-called activist groups” who would aim to capitalize on issues but only make them worse. We know the problem that exists between black men and police, it has existed for generations. “The police were started as a slave patrol – we know where the issue is, so how do we address it?” he asked. With the acknowledgment that community-police relations are bad and might be getting worse (or at least more public), LaVonte strives to find a solution other than violence. The answer is relationships, friendships – “instead of compounding the pain, we try to amend it.” In our conversation, he brings up Dr. King, who said “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” Light is love, he adds.
The Lost Boyz certainly build relationships. It is encouraging to see. So much of their work cannot be represented in statistics or any sort of quantifiable data, but when you are standing alongside LaVonte at one of the Lost Boyz events, you can feel it. This work has power. And you can hear it, never more than in my favorite story from the day.
One of the Lost Boyz, a graduating senior and an especially friendly young man, stood about 6’4” and was a true success story. He was heading off to college, to play baseball. His talent was cultivated by the coaches of Lost Boyz, What cannot be seen when he steps on the mound next spring is that his test scores were improved and his college journey was supported by LaVonte and his staff. But that’s not all. As we stood together watching the last few kids tossing a ball in the street, this young man told us that he would be working toward a career in criminal justice. A future police officer, hoping to make the world a safer place. A young man, no longer a boy. No longer lost.
Photo: Getty Images