“We are very fortunate” – Chicago Tribune | Tech US News

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Playing baseball kept the boys of Little Village safe, away from street violence and gangs. It also opened the door to opportunities that once seemed distant, said 13-year-old Freddy Garcia.

On Sunday García and friends, Víctor Cervantes and Ben DeMateo took off for Costa Rica to participate in an international baseball tournament where they will be part of the Mexican team.

“We’re very lucky,” Freddy said. “My parents are excited and say that some kids don’t have this opportunity, so we should take advantage of this opportunity.”

The boys, who have been playing side by side in Chicago’s Southwest Side parks since they were 4 years old, are the only U.S. players representing Team Mexico in the 14-year-old tournament in Central America, which runs through Sunday. , said Matt DeMateo, executive director of New Life Church, which runs the Little Village Little League. The boys will compete with teams representing the Dominican Republic, the United States, Colombia, Panama and Puerto Rico.

For more than a decade, the Little Village Little League has been a safe haven for boys, providing them with an environment away from the usual headlines and instead fostering their athletic and academic growth. More than 300 children participate in the league.

Ben DeMateo jumps into the batting cage at baseball practice in Chicago on Nov. 16, 2022.

Ben said the journey the three boys are on is about more than just baseball, it’s a testament to the work he and other community leaders have been doing to inspire change.

“For us, it’s about the power of sports to create safe spaces, where kids can thrive. Play is one of the most important ways that youth can deal with trauma and it’s one of the number one ways to build community,” said DeMateo . Children playing ball in underprivileged communities rarely have the same opportunities as those playing in leagues in more affluent areas.

Freddy, Victor and Ben know it. Just before leaving, Freddy and Victor shared their excitement to represent Mexico. “It’s a special feeling because I get to represent my parents’ background and I’m going to cherish every moment,” Victor said.

When he first started playing ball, it was just for fun, he recalled. But he started to fall in love with the game. Victor’s father, Victor Cervantes Sr., said he was proud of his son. After immigrating to Chicago from Jalisco almost 15 years ago, they settled in Little Village.

Mr. Cervantes said she is grateful her son can play in the tournament and praised the coaches for their work.

“Thank God I was able to go, and I hope you take advantage of it, not every kid your age in the neighborhood has this opportunity,” Cervantes Sr. said. “Thank God he was able to go, and I hope they take advantage of it, not every kid his age in the neighborhood has this opportunity.”

The trip is also proof that good news and good baseball players are developing in the Vila Vila neighborhood thanks to the investment in youth, said Tony Rodríguez, one of the boys’ coaches.

“But the goal of everything is for the boys to eventually get a scholarship and go on to higher education,” Rodriguez said.

Rodríguez, who grew up in Pequena Aldea, wanted to make sure the sport wasn’t just a distraction, but an avenue of growth for the youth that would ultimately also change the community narrative.

To that end, Rodriguez helped establish the Little Village Sluggers, a year-round development program part of the Little Village Little League that recruits some of the strongest players to teach them the fundamentals of the game and new skills using their connections as a former college and semi-pro coach.

He also became part of the Cubs RBI All-Star Program coaching staff in 2019. Cubs RBI is a Major League Baseball program designed to increase participation and interest in baseball and softball among youth as part of Cubs Charities. Several RBI All Stars, including all three boys, have emerged from LVLL and participate in RBI Scholars, which provides academic support to Cubs RBI athletes.

Cubs Charities, Rodriguez said, provided various resources and facilitated partnerships that allowed him and DeMateo to further their mission, including major facility improvements at Piotrowski Park. Park improvements sparked the relationship between Cubs Charities and the Little Village community in 2015. Since then, the organization has invested more than $300,000 in capital grants and programs to support things like Little Village Little League and the Cubs RBI program.

“Little Village is a great example of how sports can be a vehicle to strengthen youth, families and neighborhoods,” said Keri Blackwell, assistant director of Cubs Charities. “We are excited about the incredible adventure that awaits Ben, Victor and Freddy. Their love of the game and their drive to grow is why we remain committed to improving the quality, safety and accessibility of baseball and softball for youth in Chicago.”

The international tournament became a reality thanks to Rodriguez’s connections with a baseball academy in Mexico. The ultimate goal is to connect the players of Little Village and Mexico.

“We want to build a bridge between Chicago and Mexico – we have a lot of partners and most of our players are Mexican – so we wanted to build a strong peace community together with that group,” DeMateo said.

Freddy, Victor and Ben will be the first three players to build those connections with the Costa Rican players.

“Hopefully with our skills we can one day make it and prove that the people of Little Village can really play,” Freddy said.

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