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Bounce passes, jump shots build bridges

On a winter night with enough snow to reduce traffic on nearby Cermak Road, about a dozen boys and young men waited outside the new West Lawn Gospel Church gym and youth center for a chance to play basketball.

Some of the younger ones killed time by chasing each other with snowballs. They didn't know they were about form a new bridge between historically divided North Lawndale and Little Village.

Photo: Brent Michel

Though geographically continguous, ethnic and gang divisions sometimes make Little Village and North Lawndale feel like separate worlds.

West Lawn Gospel Church has partnered with Beyond the Ball, a youth development program that uses sports to build leadership and community service, to offer basketball and develop a league for players from both neighborhoods.

Founded by Robert and Amy Castaneda, Beyond the Ball has a history of helping youth connect across gang lines. For six years, the Castanedas ran basketball leagues at Little Village Academy. A principal change forced them out of that space, and the Castanedas spent two years looking for a new home.

At the same time, West Lawn was finishing its new gym space, but needed adults to manage programming. Brent Michel, a Beyond the Ball board member who attends church at West Lawn, helped broker the match.

Both West Lawn and Beyond the Ball hope the program will grow into a safe space for youth to play and get to know each other.

Photo: Brent Michel

Beyond the Ball is intent on bridging the gaps between the two communities with basketball as a conversation-starter.

"It's great that it's right on the border" of the two communities," said Michel. Although the neighborhoods share common problems, such as poverty and violence, longstanding racial and gang tensions have made it hard for youth to connect across neighborhood boundaries.

In the West Lawn gym in December, killing time and not connecting with others weren't options. At first, players warmed up informally. The first five to make a basket became team captains and chose four other teammates.

Teams then played very short games--to seven points--in a rotating order. Losing teams waited two rounds to get back in the game; winners only sat out once. As more players arrived, more teams joined the rotation.

Michel and Castaneda play on the teams, getting to know their teammates. Their solid ball skills quickly earn young people's respect, allowing them to referee while playing, not from the sidelines. For example, during a game, the players looked to Michel as they called traveling on another player. He agreed with the call.

Photo: Brent Michel

Located on the border of the two communities, the gym has provided a conveniently located gathering place.

The gym is so tight for space that bystanders sit on the floor, inches from the action. Younger boys, who get to shoot for the first half hour or so, can stay on to watch, but only if an older relative is there with them.

By late January, between 25 and 40 players were showing up on Tuesday and Thursday nights for open gym. Players from Little Village were beginning to mingle with the North Lawndale youth who were the first to arrive.

Everyone involved realizes building those bridges will take time. "With urban youth you can't just go up to someone and be immediately friends. It takes a lot of time and a lot of consistency," said Amy Castaneda.

Having Beyond the Ball's expertise with young people has given West Lawn Pastor Derek Rollerson the confidence to welcome all comers to open gym in a neighborhood that struggles with gang violence.

Without Beyond the Ball, "there was no way we were going to do open gym at first," he said. "We were just going to invite guys we knew and let it grow from that, but Rob and Brent know what they're doing, and the guys know it. Even if they're ethnically different, they're ballers."

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