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Ten-year-old Josh Siegel thought someone was pulling his leg when they told him he would be stepping onto the actual diamond at Wrigley Field.

“When I realized it was real, I was so happy!” says the fifth-grade shortstop.

Siegel was one of nearly 15 elementary and high school athletes walking onto Wrigley Field Thursday, Sept. 18, as grant recipients for Cubs Charities and Local Initiatives Support Corporation’s first Diamond Project.

As they gathered just beyond home plate and held their check totaling $330,000, the group of athletes smiled for pictures and waved to parents, coaches and friends in the stands. The students represented the eight schools and organizations from different areas of the city, ranging from Chatham to Lincoln Park, that were receiving grant money. For many of the student athletes, this was their first trip to the “Friendly Confines.”

“It’s their first time coming to Wrigley Field, so for them to actually be able to step onto the field, it’s amazing to see their reaction,” says Sean Ortiz, a park supervisor associated with grant recipientBack of Yards Neighborhood Council.

The Diamond Project, which started this year, aims to improve the quality and safety of local baseball fields and training facilities in underserved neighborhoods of Chicago. The project focuses not only on creating fields, but also on building infrastructure around them through partnerships and community involvement. The hope is that the neighborhoods can sustain these fields for years to come.

“This is a chance for us to help the city of Chicago rebuild their baseball fields, get more kids playing the game and just foster a love of the sport,” says Jennifer Dedes Nowak, manager of Cubs Charities Programs.

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How It All Began 

Talk of the program began a year and a half ago, when Cubs Charities contacted LISC Chicago after hearing LISC had partnered with the National Football League to refurbish local football fields.

“We had a connection with the Cubs and they called and said, ‘How do you do that?’” says Keri Blackwell, deputy director at LISC.

LISC is part of a national nonprofit that connects low-income neighborhoods with resources that can make them stronger and healthier. Once they agreed to partner with Cubs Charities on the project, LISC helped identify the Chicago neighborhoods with the greatest need, reviewed all of the proposals, visited the various sites and presented their recommendations to the Cubs Charities Board.

“They [LISC] definitely have a real pulse on the community, what’s needed and how we can help build neighborhoods,” Dedes Nowak says.

Boosting Morale

Organizations handed in their applications for the Diamond Project grants last June and were notified that they were chosen at the beginning of September.

“They were kind of surprised because they didn’t know when we were going to call with the news,” Dedes Nowak says. “There was a lot of excitement, a lot of cheering.”

Recipients of this year’s Diamond Project included: Academy for Urban School Leadership, Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, Breakthrough Urban Ministries, Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation in partnership with Wells Academy High School, Friends of Alcott, Neighborhood Boys and Girls Club,Perspectives Charter School and Southside Little League.

Rita Raichoudhuri, principal at Wells Community Academy High School, says receiving this grant has really boosted her staff and student body’s morale. Even though the school has been around since 1935, it has never had its own athletic field.

“We’ve been applying to a lot of grants for a lot of years now and this is the first tangible amount that we’ve actually received,” Raichoudhuri says.

Raichoudhuri brought the captains of her boys’ baseball team and girls’ softball team to represent their school on the field Thursday.

Their Time to Shine

Over 100 people from the eight organizations, including high school team captains and little league players who will directly benefit from the projects, were invited to Wrigley Field for the ceremony and the game following it on September 18.

“Tonight is really just a time to bring all the grantees together, to celebrate them and give them a moment to shine,” Blackwell says.

And shine they did.

Genesis Robinson, 15, attended the ceremony with Breakthrough Urban Ministries. Robinson, who has played softball since she was in the third grade, beamed as she described how special the experience was.

“We get grants all the time, but not like this,” Robinson says. “They usually just tell us we’re getting something instead of us going out and getting it. Now, we’re going out and getting it.”

Actual work on the organizations’ various projects began the day after the ceremony, Friday, Sept. 19. The list of the various projects includes indoor facility improvements, turf fields, and amenities like fences, lighting and bleachers.

 

Photos by Mary Colleen Ginley