Chicago youth empowered by baseball; 'I would do it all over'

CHICAGO -- ABC Owned Television Stations and ABC's Localish present 50 inspiring stories from around the country for Fifty/50, as part of The Walt Disney Company's monumental initiative highlighting the 50th anniversary of the passing of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any educational institution that receives federal funding, and gave women the equal opportunity to play. This story was originally published in October 2020.

For this Chicago baseball team, it's about a lot more than the love of the game.

The players at Lost Boyz Inc. are engaging with their community and learning from their neighbors.

"Our organizational mission is to decrease violence through the power of sport and to help develop and empower young people," Executive Director LaVonte Stewart said.

Stewart started Lost Boyz Inc. in 2008 in Chicago's South Shore neighborhood. Stewart was concerned with the emerging anti-social behavioral patterns affecting local boys.

So, he created a baseball team.

"People always ask me 'Why baseball?'" Stewart said. "It's kind of a two-prong answer. One, it was a big part of my sporting background. Secondly, there's nothing more American than baseball."

After a few years of success with neighborhood boys, Stewart and his team received a grant from the Sports 4 Life Initiative, a funding partnership between the Women's Sports Foundation and espnW.

The grant opened the door for girls to start playing fast-pitch softball within Lost Boyz Inc.

"I really didn't like it at first," Fantasia Rollins said. "I had family issues and stuff; the reason I played was because it kept me motivated, it kept me on track in school. I just loved sports."

Rollins was one of the original Lost Girlz. She started playing in the fifth grade and hasn't looked back since.

"It was one of my coping skills. Every time I played softball it kept my mind off a lot of stuff. I invited my siblings to play softball and baseball and they liked it too," Rollins said.

In addition to playing baseball, coaches teach the kids about cultural awareness, service learning and civic engagement.

"As kids approach 15, 16 years old, they began to lose interest," Stewart said. "So we created a program that allowed a continuum of service based on the same model, except we swapped out playing ball for workforce development."

As a Successful Youth Leader, former players like Rollins become junior coaches, sports statisticians and grounds crew members for the organization.

Rollins coaches the middle-school-aged softball teams and also works as an administrator.

"I think it's helped me grow a lot because I'm more mature, more focused and more positive," Rollins said. "If I had the chance, I would do it all over."