In 1998, my wife, Amy, and I moved into our first home, in Little Village, on the west side of Chicago. We immediately got involved in the sports program at the school where she was teaching. The kids would often tell us how they were being harassed by gang members outside of school. We would encourage them to “do the right thing” and not to give in to gang pressures or intimidation. After living in our new community for a year we found out first hand what it felt like to be intimidated by local gangs. In retaliation for reporting gang activity, the local gang set our house on fire twice while we were inside sleeping. They came back a third time and threw a bottle through our front window while screaming that they were going to kill us for calling the police. Our initial reaction was to leave the community, but we were challenged by the youth that we worked with not to give in to gang intimidation.
This was a defining moment in our lives. We decided to stay in our home. We knew that something needed to be done to challenge the culture of gang violence that paralyzes the community. We didn’t know what we were going to do, so we just continued to do what we loved doing. We provided opportunities for youth to play in the community. This effort evolved into Beyond the Ball. Today, Beyond the Ball is globally recognized for our work in the sports based youth and community development field. We provide free programming for a thousand community youth and partner with them, their families and other community organizations to make our community a safer and healthier place for everyone.
Our community has few public play spaces, and the few that do exist are underutilized due to their history of gang violence. Sports participation played an important role in my life in terms of influencing me to adopt a healthy lifestyle and to learn values such as teamwork and respect—values that help people to be productive members of society. The youth in my community need the opportunity to play just as I did. They deserve safe spaces to do so. Therefore, at Beyond the Ball, we target underutilized play spaces in our area and transform them into safe places where you now see what I call, “community being community.” You see the things you would expect to see in a healthy place: children on playground equipment, families jumping rope, youth playing basketball, residents gathering to talk. We are making tangible changes in our neighborhood, and we continue to change the culture from one that accepts violence as a norm to one that seeks community health.
We are empowering our youth to exercise through sports programming while teaching them specific values to make them healthier people overall. But what really differentiates what we are doing is that we go beyond just making healthy individuals to emphasize the collective health of the overall community. The relationships formed and values taught within our programs have helped residents take greater ownership of our neighborhood, and I believe we have a model for change that will help improve Little Village, Chicago, and other under-resourced communities around the world.
Robert Castaneda and his wife Amy founded Beyond the Ball in 1998, a sports-based youth and community development organization.