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• Pole Vaulter Chris Baldwin Combats Gangs with Summer Youth Sports Program
June 14, 2010
By Courtney Ratkowiak
Chris Baldwin had a simple request: Please don't steal the toys.
And when he realized one of the people he was asking had a knife in hand, Baldwin knew he was about to deal with the exact type of violence he had been trying to curb for multiple summers.
Baldwin was working at YAAP (Youth Athletics and Activities Program), the summer program he had founded in his hometown of Battle Creek, Mich. As the children in the program played with the athletic equipment YAAP had brought to their neighborhood, a group of five young adults walked by the area and picked up some of the toys. They played with the younger children for awhile, then tired of the idea and started to walk away, taking the toys with them.
Baldwin stopped the group.
"Hey, sorry, but can we keep the equipment here?" he asked.
That's when he noticed the knife. He knew it was just a show of intimidation for the time being but wasn't about to let it escalate to anything worse.
Calmly, he told the group that YAAP needed the equipment. Without the toys, the kids in the program wouldn't be able to have fun. If they wanted, the group could stay and play with the other children, but the toys needed to stay there.
The teenagers looked at the kids, looked at Baldwin and tossed the toys back.
"Whatever," one of them said.
The group walked away.
He admits now he was nervous that afternoon in Battle Creek. But Baldwin, a class of 2010 graduate and pole vaulter on Michigan's track and field team, knew the incident demonstrated just how difficult it was to reach teens already entrenched in a community of violence.
And preventing other children in his hometown from adopting that lifestyle was why he has now returned to Battle Creek for four straight summers, drawing from both his athletic experience and his psychology classes at Michigan to make YAAP successful.
In the summer of 2007, after his sophomore year, Baldwin was still undecided on a major at Michigan and unsure of his post-college career goals. And during his two years in Ann Arbor, Battle Creek had changed. In 2006, police estimated that 36 percent of the city's 191 gun crimes were gang-related, according to a WZZM-13 news station report in January 2007. Baldwin had rarely heard about gang violence while attending Lakeview High School, but he started hearing stories from his parents and younger brother.
Angry, Baldwin wondered why the kids in his hometown were beginning to resort to violence instead of finishing high school. His parents told him that he couldn't complain about the problem unless he tried to do something to solve it.
That summer, armed with a community grant from the Battle Creek Community Foundation and accompanied by three fellow college athletes, dubbed "mentors," he decided to start a gang prevention program targeted at children aged eight to 12 years old.
"(Children) join gangs because they have no other group to belong to, and they feel like they have to," Baldwin said. "They become so ingrained; it's like a surrogate family. We try to intervene before that happens."
When thinking of a program that would keep kids off the streets, Baldwin knew athletics needed to be a part of it. While at Michigan for five years, his teammates were his closest friends. He credits track and field with helping him stay focused on schoolwork and out of trouble, both in high school and college.
With YAAP, Baldwin and his mentors travel to one to three neighborhoods each day and teach the children how to play organized sports. By introducing the kids to multiple athletic activities, Baldwin hoped they would find a sport they enjoyed and be able to play it in high school.
He and the other mentors quickly found that being college athletes strengthened their credibility as role models, both while helping the children learn to play sports and talking to them about not giving in to destructive influences like drugs or alcohol.
"Track and field might not be the most exciting sport for kids, but it's still a college sport," Jamie Boyd, a YAAP mentor who is on the track team at Albion College, said. "We're not at all shy about (being athletes), so we brought it up right away and tried to get along with them, find things that relate to them. Just to hear that 'these college athletes are here to play with us,' it gets more kids involved."
Though Baldwin initially intended to teach the kids a new sport each week, the activities quickly became more informal. Kids requested jump ropes, hula hoops and sidewalk chalk. Kickball became popular at sites with fewer children, and if the kids were old enough, the mentors tried to start a game of basketball or soccer. The program grew from three neighborhoods in its first year to nine last summer, with between 10 and 70 children at each site.
Baldwin's interest in athletics helped him begin YAAP, but his experience that first summer helped him choose psychology as his major at Michigan. After taking a social psychology class, he realized the concepts he was learning in the classroom -- like the need for affiliation, or the desire to identify with a group -- fit perfectly with YAAP's goal of giving children a healthy social outlet. He took the opportunity to study other intervention programs, especially those dealing with gang intervention. In a psychology independent study class as a fifth-year senior, Baldwin created a YAAP guidebook that detailed the program's history and implementation, designed to help someone who might want to replicate the program.
But his psychology classes couldn't prepare him or the other mentors for some of the unexpected trouble situations in the program. Since the YAAP sites are in neighborhoods and other public areas, disputes between adults would occasionally begin in front of the children, forcing Baldwin and the mentors to move the kids away from the conflict.
And last summer, after a father in the community passed away suddenly, Baldwin and his fellow mentors put sports aside and spent the day talking with the kids about the death.
"We've had stabbings and shootings and a lot of the kids go to funerals for family members, and you have to talk to them about that," Baldwin said. "They ask, 'Why would somebody do that? Why is that happening?' They aren't easy questions to answer, but we learned you have to be honest and you have to tell them the whole story and answer every question they have or else it's not going to turn out well for them."
In the program's fourth summer, the effects are already clear. When Baldwin returns home, he often sees children wearing the YAAP shirts provided by the program at the end of each summer. Some of the kids that participated in the first couple years and are now in their mid-teens have returned to the program but now as volunteers.
When YAAP starts again in mid-June, Baldwin's biggest challenge will be to find a successor. Because he will be starting law school at Michigan this fall, he won't be able to run the program next year due to the need for a summer internship. He is still unsure of his career goals after law school, but after his experience in YAAP, is possibly considering work in community service.
"(YAAP) is about college kids trying to help youth and give back to the community, as opposed to the negative things that may have happened," Baldwin said. "For me, there are great personal stories, but I don't need to be a hero in front of people who are being aggressive in front of the group or dealing with death. It's way more important for me that people see that we're giving back and trying to make a difference in the community."
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