• Play Like a Champion

North Lawndale Community Inspires through Youth Sports

The National Advisory Board and staff of the Play Like a Champion Today Educational Series convened in Chicago last weekend for a series of events and presentations. While the weekend was full of important discussion and plenty of fun, one opportunity left those in attendance particularly inspired. As those gathered quickly learned, something special is happening in North Lawndale.

On Saturday, April 7th Play Like a Champion representatives from across the country sat down with a group of coaches in a room overlooking Ogden Avenue. Ogden is a street with an interesting history, an artery that runs from Chicago's near west side out to the suburbs. This particular section of road cuts through the North Lawndale neighborhood, a location just blocks from where Martin Luther King Jr. moved in 1966 in order to call attention to racial segregation and discrimination in the North; this became the base for the Chicago Freedom Movement.

A quick Google search of the area doesn't do it any favors, failing to recognize a rich history in lieu of news and statistics that convey the violence and poverty that has become the story in Chicago for the past several years. Yet the story in this room was distinctly different. There was no sign of fear, no talk of the poverty or difficulty faced by a community where 25% of residents don't graduate high school. Instead, there was a sense of opportunity, an understanding that the North Lawndale community has tremendous promise. That promise begins with the children of the community and a group of coaches committed to changing the culture through sports.

One of the stories told last weekend was that of the DRW College Prep Girls Basketball team. Perhaps the most interesting thing one initially learns about this team is that their school does not have a gym. Instead, coaches fund-raised for portable hoops that they can wheel into the school's cafeteria for practices. That type of dedication alone is indicative of the spirit one finds among coaches in North Lawndale.

In October 2017, through a relationship formed at last summer's Play Like a Champion Sports Leadership Conference, DRW Head Coach Charles Merrick had the opportunity to take his team to Washington DC as part of a collaboration with Georgetown Titans Youth Hockey (a fellow Play Like a Champion partner). Most of his team had never been outside Chicago, yet the team raised funds and boarded a train for DC. Once there, the teams skated together and completed a service project. DRW got a tour of our nation's Capitol. Among the trip's highlights were visits to the college campuses of Georgetown and Howard Universities. The experience was transforming. Charles Merrick notes that since the date of the trip in October, the cumulative team GPA has increased over 30%, a development Merrick credited to the college visits and overall experience. What's more, the team didn't lose on the court either; the lack of a true gym didn't stop them from narrowly missing an undefeated season and another championship. What happens when a group of students are allowed to dream about their potential? It turns out they begin to realize it.

As the group gathered last weekend noted, there are broader implications here as well. Said Darrin Brown, Director of Wolfpack Basketball in North Lawndale, "Kids can't be different if they never see different; they need to see what exists outside the community, outside their neighborhood." The girls of DRW had that opportunity and the results speak for themselves.

While the DRW story was characteristic of the tremendous things going on in North Lawndale, it is far from the only example. Coaches from the Eagles Football program, Wolfpack Basketball, The Bloc (a nonprofit boxing club), Endless Energy Sports, Herzl School, and more shared their experiences and vision during Saturday's session. Those gathered heard about both triumphs and tragedies, about a lack of resources and how these children and coaches are overcoming the odds each day. Yet the confidence and determination of the coaches never wavered, as these men and women spoke with passion about the ability of sports to transform the lives of children in their community and create a better future both on and off the fields and courts.

Now, these individuals have come together to form something bigger. The North Lawndale Athletic & Recreation Association (NLARA) is being formed through a collaboration of these coaches, the North Lawndale Community, UCAN, Old Saint Patrick's Church, and the Play Like a Champion Today Educational Series. The organization's mission is to support and develop sustainable sports programming for all children in the community to play in a safe and nurturing environment. The NLARA provides a tremendous platform for the North Lawndale community, which we believe can serve as a prototype for similar communities across North America.

As the group gathered last weekend learned, there is something special going on in North Lawndale. It begins with the coaches and children using sports as a vehicle for something greater. Play Like a Champion is proud to be partnering with this community and is inspired by the work and vision of those involved. There's no doubt we'll be hearing more from North Lawndale in the weeks and months to come.

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Play Like a Champion Today Educational Series

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