By Evan F. Moore
Children playing, laughing, and making new friends is a welcome site for a stretch of turf once known as a dividing line of two rival street gangs.
Rob Castaneda and his wife Amy made this possible.
“Historically, people never came here,” Castaneda recalled. “People would get jumped here. People would get stabbed here. People would get shot here.”
His ability to put such dangers in the past tense is a testament to the Castaneda’s grit and vision. From a small program that reached a few kids in Little Village, its embrace has sprawled to hundreds.
On a recent Saturday, for example, more than 1000 people attended the Bitty Ball picnic. And there are plans to expand, reaching out to more Latino and black neighborhoods.
Indeed, the Castaneda’s effort is a reminder of what happens when neighbors step forward to become heroes in their hood.
Founded in 2005, Beyond the Ball is non-profit organization that uses the game of basketball to teach its participants life skills than extend into the classroom.
Two street gangs, the Two Six’s and the Latin Kings, still vie for the territory that surrounds the space used by Beyond the Ball. And at one point several years ago, someone in the neighborhood wanted the Castaneda’s out one way or another.
“When I moved into the neighborhood, I experienced gang-banging on a whole different level, “Castaneda said. “ There would be 5 to 40 guys gang-banging in front of our house. They found out we called the police and they set our house on fire while we were sleeping.”
Brent Michel, Director of Marketing & Development for Beyond the Ball, believes that the program helps children on several fronts.
“It teaches sports skills and teaches values to kids we’re doing leadership development for the future,” Michel said.” But at the same time we want to make a difference in the community right now.”
Every summer, Beyond the Ball has a program called Project Play, provides recreational activities for kids and their parents. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Beyond the Ball participants and their families gather at the same time to play basketball, badminton, kickball, and wiffleball, among others things.
The space used by Beyond the Ball is between two elementary schools: Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez Elementary School and Joseph E. Gary Elementary School, which was once known to local residents as “Scary Gary.”
The idea for Project Play originated from the Bitty Ball picnics which, drew over 1,000 residents who wanted to enjoy a day of food and fun.
“My wife said let’s have this picnic outside of the school, “Castaneda said.
“At the end of school year, the kids would be crying oh no bitty ball is over I’m going to be stuck in my house all day,” Michel said. “So Amy Castaneda, one of our co-founders said we can’t have kids crying at the end of the year let’s try something let’s have a picnic at the end of the year for all of the kids and their families and see what happens.”
Positive reinforcement is also a hallmark of the program. The children in the program wear t-shirts with different principles on the back such as community, leadership, perseverance, respect, responsibility, and teamwork.
Amy Castaneda, the program’s co-founder believes that the biggest supporters of the program are the parents who have their kids involved.
“I’ve talked to parents who have notice a difference in how their kids behaved,” Amy said. “We teach core values like responsibility, respect, perseverance, teamwork and just seeing that in the kids and bringing that into the classroom.”
Rick Duran has his son and daughter in the program. “At first they didn’t want to play but now they are running around, “Duran said. “ It’s more about exercise than sitting in front of the TV.”
Former Beyond the Ball participants often come back to volunteer. Mike Torres started in the program while he was a sophomore in high school.
“You can tell when someone has a genuine care for these kids,” Torres said.” I keep would coming I would walk one or two miles. I know what it takes… I know what these kids go through. I want to be there for these kids as a supportive male role model. “
Rob Castaneda has aspirations to take the program to other neighborhoods in the city.
“Right now, we are partnering with other groups in the city, “Castaneda said. “Right now, we have something called Hoops in the Hood for older kids. Those neighborhoods would be Auburn-Gresham, Englewood, West Garfield, Humboldt Park, and Pilsen.”