Sox, Bulls team up to help Chicago youth
Teams supporting counseling program to improve social skills, avoid escalation
CHICAGO -- Two young men are put together in a room. One is given a tennis ball and the other is told to get possession of the ball.
The exercise is repeated several times and the result is basically the same each time: The young men instructed to get the ball attempt to do so through verbal and physical intimidation, leading to confrontations and fights.
No one thinks to simply ask if he could hold the ball. Not one.
That is how many at-risk adolescents are introduced to an innovative counseling program run through the Chicago Public Schools titled "Becoming a Man - Sports Edition." The program, which is operated by Youth Guidance, focuses on improving the social skills of young men struggling with aggressive behavior (and who may not have access to a strong father figure) through sports and interaction with each other to help them better succeed in school and life.
In support of that effort, the White Sox and Bulls produced a series of public-service announcements promoting an anti-violence message. The PSAs provided a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the program's inner workings and are featured on the websites of both teams (whitesox.com/community and bulls.com/community).
"As sports organizations, the Bulls and White Sox are fortunate to work with groups like Youth Guidance, who are in our communities working with kids every day," said Jerry Reinsdorf, the chairman of both teams. "Our goal as a partner is to shine a light on organizations like Youth Guidance and to encourage young people who are looking for support to reach out to them and others in the community who are addressing the issue of violence."
As the tennis ball exercise demonstrates to the students, there often is a way to achieve success they may not have considered, and aggression should not be the first response.
"That is a great example," said Michelle Morrison, the CEO of Youth Guidance. "The BAM curriculum is chock full of exercises that teach how to better deal with everyday situations.
"If your inclination is to go after something in an aggressive manner because you assume you'll meet resistance, you'll meet resistance. But if you start learning how to read social cues differently, you'll find that you are not always in a hostile situation.
"For many young men, when someone steps on their foot, they think it was done intentionally. It never occurs to them that it might have been an accident."
For many people, the lessons of the BAM program probably seem routine, but the same rules and standards taken for granted in most areas of the country don't exist in some of the rougher neighborhoods, where basic survival often breeds a high level of anti-social behavior among the youth.
Without some form of intervention, many of the young males will be destined for a life of unfulfilled potential, poverty and, perhaps, eventually a place in the criminal justice system.
Youth Guidance's programs serve roughly 14,000 at-risk youths in 70 Chicago schools, but the most striking element of the BAM program is its intimacy. In the formal rap sessions, the youths, counselors and other guests sit in small circles of about 15 to 20 and engage in frank and open discussions about a variety of topics.
BAM, which was developed by and is managed by Anthony DiVittorio of Youth Guidance, gained national attention in February when President Obama participated in a session at Hyde Park Academy, not far from his Chicago home.
Obama surprised many of the students with his openness and willingness to engage them, and the planned 30-minute session ended up lasting nearly an hour.
"These guys are no different from me," the president said in his remarks at the school following the session. "They have issues, and so did I."
In the rap sessions featured in the PSAs with the White Sox and Bulls, one took place in the home clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field and the other was at center court in the United Center. Among the participants were Sox executive vice president Ken Williams and Bulls players Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler.
Williams was immediately intrigued after being told about the program.
"I had the pleasure of listening to the presentation to [Chicago] Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Jerry Reinsdorf," Williams said. "We all took away that this was a program that already was working and something that we wanted to be a part of. I asked for the opportunity to be a part of it.
"One of the things that gets lost on people is why we exist, why sports teams exist. We exist for the enjoyment of the community, connecting the pride of the community and giving it something to root for. If we're going to be a part of that, we have to give back."
One of the more powerful moments in the PSAs is Williams talking about the unsafe neighborhoods that many of the BAM youths face on a daily basis.
"We're dealing with the real deal here; we're dealing with young men's lives," he said in the PSA. "They're dealing with more challenges today than any generation has ever been faced with and it needs to be fixed. If our children can't leave the house and feel reasonably confident that they're going to make it to school, there's a problem."
The level of violent crime in certain Chicago neighborhoods has been a problem for decades, but the issue received national attention last year when the number of murders within the city limits topped 500. That's a dubious milestone the city hadn't reached in decades, and it was made all the more distressing by the fact that the number of homicides was dramatically declining in other big cities.
Most murder victims, of course, remain anonymous, faceless statistics and it's tough to get emotional over numbers. And let's also be honest and acknowledge that many of the killings are gang-on-gang violence, so the problem is easily ignored by most Chicagoans.
But the tragedy of the situation was shoved to the forefront in January when a 15-year-old girl named Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed while standing with friends in a South Side park just days after she performed at President Obama's inauguration in Washington.
Pendleton, a majorette and an honor student at King College Prep High School, was among a group of about 12 teenagers who sought shelter from the rain under a canopy in the park when, according to police, two men mistook the group for a rival gang and opened fire.
Pendleton was shot in the back and died from her wounds. That is the definition of a senseless killing and it's the sort of thing many Chicago adolescents must face far too often.
Because of that reality, Shaun Hickombottom, the Bulls' media and public relations manager, didn't know what to expect when he took part in a BAM session last summer.
"I was nervous going in; I didn't know what to expect," he said. "I was very surprised with how the kids participated. It was me doing more listening than talking. It was awesome."
The impact BAM has had on its students probably can be classified as awesome as well.
According to a study released last year by the University of Chicago's Crime Lab, the youths participating in BAM during the 2009-10 school year experienced a 44-percent decrease in arrests for violent crime and had a 23-percent increase in graduation rates.
"The program costs around $1,100 per participant, while its impacts on criminal behavior generated benefits to society that are valued on the order of $3,600 to $34,000 per participant, depending on how we measure the cost of crime," Crime Lab director Jens Ludwig said in a press release at the time the study was released. "We have data from the most rigorous possible scientific study suggesting that it is not only possible to prevent youth violence involvement through pro-social programs, but that the returns on investment are extremely high. The benefit-cost ratios are on the order of 3:1 to 31:1."
For Morrison, the study's results affirm the decision to build the program around high school students.
"A lot of people think that by the time a youth gets to adolescence, it's too late," she said. "I love that we can show that at adolescence it's not too late."
Addressing the crime problem has been a focus of Mayor Emanuel's since last year's spike in violence and he's taken aggressive steps to do so. Since the beginning of the year, he's provided money for police overtime to flood problem areas with more officers. The approach seems to be working as the city's murder rate was down by about a third through mid-June from the same period a year ago.
Mayor Emanuel also has looked for ways to evoke change beyond a better police presence and rewarded BAM's success with a major financial commitment. In a time of budget tightening and program cuts in cities across the country, the mayor announced earlier this year at a news conference that the city was increasing its financial support for the program from $1 million to $3 million.
With the additional funds, the students participating in BAM could expand from the current 600 to approximately 2,000.
"The greatest thing we can do as a city is give our children the support they need to succeed in the classroom, get jobs and build successful and enjoyable lives," Mayor Emanuel said at the time. "We are investing in programs that have shown significant return on investment. They have reduced failing grades, reduced arrests, increased graduation rates, kept our youth out of gangs and made a difference in keeping our most vulnerable children safe.
"With this new investment, we will have programs in place that provide additional jobs, career training and guidance to at-risk youth. I will continue to work on providing safe alternatives to reduce the incidents of students getting involved with drugs, gangs and violence."
BAM's impact in troubled communities was established before the Sox and Bulls became involved, but Morrison believes the role the teams can play in expanding the program's awareness is vital.
"I think it was just the perfect alignment of our missions," she said. "The sense I get from the White Sox and Bulls is they want to give back, they want to be fully engaged in the program. What's really cool is they've had players and they've had management people involved."
Students are understandably excited to meet current athletes, but having interactions with someone like Williams and other management types from the Sox and Bulls figure to have a bigger impact because of the life skills they can learn. For some, simply learning how to apply for a job can make a huge difference.
"A lot of these kids have to fight the fight of being safe in their neighborhoods," Williams said, "and then they have to have the vision of developing goals and discovering what they want to do with their lives."
The intensity of the rap sessions certainly is conveyed in the PSAs.
"I've heard from a few people who thought they were really riveting; they felt like they were listening in on a conversation," Morrison said. "They were kind of blown away by it."
Of course, that's the idea -- to get the program's message out.
"There are so many good things happening through programs and organizations like community churches," Williams said. "People are trying to uplift the community, but these aren't the things that are being reported on the evening news."
John Jackson is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.