Commentary

Opportunity for Dorchester to 'RISE UP'

ESPN's overhaul of schools' athletic facilities could be a community springboard

Updated: August 24, 2011, 12:25 PM ET
By Corey J. Allen | Special to ESPNBoston.com

High School fieldJacob Belcher/ESPN Rise This "before" photo of Roberts Field in Dorchester tells the story of the condition of the facilities.

Editor's note: ESPN's new original series RISE UP chose a Dorchester school as one of four nationwide to receive a renovation of its athletic facilities. The story of the transformation -- with video of the new facilities -- will be told during an hour-long program airing on ESPN on Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. ET. What follows is one view of what this project means to the Dorchester community.

While some people can't see past headlines of violence in the community, on Dorchester's streets there are neighbors leisurely walking their dogs as the sun comes over the Atlantic Ocean, smiling preschool children following each other like a row of ducks down the sidewalk, and homeowners tending to their yards.

It's a dynamic community. Despite the negative rap it gets, there is a lot of development here. But that story doesn't sell, so here's another one for you. This one is positive, the kind that'll give 02124 hope and pride.

At 9 Peacevale Road, the athletic home of the Dorchester Bears, who field students from both TechBoston Academy and Dorchester Academy, ESPN's "RISE UP" announced on June 3 that the schools would receive an overhaul of their dilapidated athletic facilities and nearby Roberts Field. The project will be highlighted on the ESPN series airing in the fall (Sept. 27, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN).

As a city guy (born, raised and educated through college in Dorchester and Mattapan), I was excited when I heard the announcement. As a freelance writer for ESPNBoston.com, I saw it as an opportunity to get some good ink for the city I love. As a teacher and community liaison for TechBoston Academy, I was elated at the chance for the students, teachers, coaches, staff, families and the entire community, as we were one of the few schools chosen nationwide for this coveted opportunity.

Good things do happen here, but only when the community takes possession of its problems and works to find solutions that change can happen. This is exactly the kind of thing Dorchester needs.

"Whenever they get help, they don't look at is as a handout," said ESPN analyst and RISE UP co-host Chris Spielman. "They look at it as an opportunity to make themselves better and educate themselves. And to me, sports is just as important as the classroom. You learn life lessons in sports, just like you learn life lessons in the classroom, so we're just trying to enhance that for them. "

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Jacob Belcher/ESPN Rise Weight-lifting equipment lays discarded at the facilities.

"We watched a PSA that one of the kids produced, and heard stories about kids getting mugged on the way to the T," said Deanne Bell of the DIY television network, after she and Spielman joined principals Mary Skipper and Kwesi Moody in announcing the venture to their students and staff. "They don't deserve that. They're doing their best to learn and to do the best they can, so we want to do our best to create a safe field for them just to get to school and back."

Students producing a PSA about being victims of mugging? This isn't the Juliard School of Arts. This is Dorchester, and the students are aware of their surroundings, so their manifestations of life are going to be different.

They're taking ownership of the potential barriers that surround them. In this case, their efforts resulted in securing funding for a new field that will provide safer travel to and from the Ashmont MBTA station, in addition to creating a better practice space for athletes.

"I think it was critical for the kids to have a chance to tell their story in such a powerful way," said Skipper, chief executive officer at TechBoston Academy. "They have learned to be creators of media and not just consumers, and with that, they got ESPN's attention, which is awesome."

Does a public school deserve such an honor? Absolutely.

"No question the school is deserving of it and more importantly the kids are deserving of it," said Bob Holmes, high school sports editor at the Boston Globe. "There are a lot of schools in the city that have had some dramatic improvements in their facilities, Boston English, Southie with Moakley Park, and why not Dorchester? The field is right behind the school just like Madison Park and O'Bryant, it's perfect."

Cynthia Loesch, a 26-year old Dorchester native who is slated to start law school in the fall, has helped to keep the character of the neighborhood colorful. Loesch recently stepped down as the head of the Codman Square Farmers' Market and the Codman Square Neighborhood Health Council to focus on law school. She will remain active with these groups as well as BOLD (Breath of Life Dorchester) Teens, a group she founded at the age of 13, which was then called Teens Against Tobacco. Loesch believes that the new field and facilities will not only improve the landscape of the space in front of the school, but provide the students with a healthy outlet.

"Physical activity is an important part of living healthy," Loesch said. "Since students spend a significant amount of the week at school, it is important for the school to have the appropriate resources to accommodate the student body and their needs. Students are able to excel in school when there are proper resources for them to advance mentally, physically and emotionally. When our students excel, our community does as well."

Loesch, through other means, has recently unveiled plans for a field to be redone on her own street, less than half a mile from Roberts Field. Through dedication and persistence, Loesch accomplished something similar to the students at the two schools. She shares the same mission of improving living conditions of the community with the optimism that the living condition will be enhanced with supplementary resources.

"We were able to secure capital funds from the both the city and state to renovate Cronin Playground in Codman Square," Loesch said. "Such an investment will allow hundreds of youth to have a safe place to grow, learn and play. When designed and developed to reach and assist a significant number of youth and benefit the entire community, an investment of this kind is beneficial to the neighborhood as a whole."

Potential benefits of having the facilities revamped are opportunities for students to play sports that haven't been previously offered to the Bears. Shaquille Peters has played tennis for the last two years, but has never done so wearing a Bears uniform.

"Since we don't have a tennis team, I was assigned to the Boston Latin Academy tennis team. I had to travel to their school so I could play on their team, which caused me to leave our school between an hour -- on practice days -- to two hours early on game days," said Peters. "I fell behind in some of the classes I left school for, which caused me to have to constantly make up work for these classes."

A native of Antigua and Barbuda, Peters was forced to maintain good grades, his parents would have it no other way. But he also loved to play tennis, so he stretched himself thin to please his family and pursue his passion of tennis. He feels that if there were better facilities at the school, the students would respond and fill out teams that presently require students to leave the premises in order to participate.

[+] EnlargeWeeds in Stands
Jacob Belcher/ESPN Rise Not only are the fields in rough shape, the stands are in need of some TLC as well.

"Having facilities at our own school, having our own team would help people who want to play tennis, or other sports that we don't offer now, such as lacrosse or swimming, giving them a chance to play the sport they want and a sense of pride for their school," he said. "Not just another school that offers their sport."

One student who is proud of being a Bear is John Ramsey, a rising sophomore who was unable to play varsity this year due to academics. But Ramsey's been working hard with his teachers and Boston Scholar Athlete Center coordinator Tyrell Maddox to become eligible. He feels that athletics play a very important part in his life and with it missing, leaves a void that is easily filled with all of the wrong things.

"After practice, I'm tired, I go home and take a shower, do my work and pass out, so I'm not going to be out in the streets."

Ramsey admitted when he's visited other institutions where there are lavish workout facilities and fields without broken bottles and needles, it makes him wish that Dorchester was a little better.

"When we go to other schools and we see the fields and what their weight rooms are like, we say 'I want that too', but when we come back to what we have, it doesn't feel good."

Ramsey thinks that some students who previously did not take athletics, or themselves, as seriously as they should have, will be inspired by the final product, whatever it may be, since it will be a vast enhancement from what currently exists.

"I think some people will be inspired by the improvements in the athletics facilities here at the school," he said.

During this past football offseason, Boston School police officer Sgt. Bill Kelly, who is stationed at the complex, and Project REACH outreach counselor Andy Pollock, whose schools include Dorchester and TechBoston Academies, answered the calls from players to hold offseason work outs. Neither of them coach any sports at the school, so they are eligible to volunteer with the players during their free time without violating any MIAA rules. A few days a week, before manning his post at the school, Kelly would open up the gym and weight room and supervise the players; Pollock would take the afternoon shift.

"It's difficult to have more than seven or eight guys in there (at a time)," said Pollock. "Only three of the cardio machines are fully operational, and there are pins missing from the weightlifting machines. Guys don't like when I tell them to do sit ups on a dirty floor with no mats, but they've been dedicated to improving themselves as a team."

Once the transformation is complete, there will be more work to do for the students.

"It's incumbent upon them to take ownership of this project, because we're going to leave (and) they're not," added Spielman. "This is their community, and they're going to sign their name to what they do to it ... They want to have a place where there's not needles and broken glass in the field. Or when you're walking off practice, and you want to do some extra drills, you don't have to wait for six of your buddies to walk you off the practice field. That's insane."

Johnny Williams, the Dean of Students at Dorchester Academy and head boys basketball coach for the Bears, has deep history in Boston basketball. He has coached a number Division I ball players in AAU and neighborhood leagues, including Jonathan Kale, a Mattapan native who later played for Providence College. Last season, Kale played for Spain's Aguas De Sousas Club Ourense Baloncesto and for the Ivory Coast team in the FIBA Championship. When he comes back home, he works out with his old coach at the Dorchester Bears' gym.

Williams believes that all of the players who don the Bears' uniform can attain the same heights Kale has, but it won't be easy. Renovating the gym and field and weight rooms will not be enough.

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Jacob Belcher/ESPN Rise Students were thrilled at the announcement that their athletic facilities were selected for an overhaul.

"They can make improvements to the playing fields and courts, but we need better workout facilities and people properly trained in weight lifting and conditioning in order for our students to compete on a higher level," Williams said. "Not just a New England level, being the basketball coach, I want to compete on the national level."

As the dean of students, Williams deals with all levels of community partners: parents, teachers, students, residents, and business owners. He takes a holistic approach to what it will take for the Bears to become what they want to become.

"I think the willingness to work needs to come from the school, players and the parents. We all have to participate. Staff members have to help out with tutorials, so that if we condition a player to play on a collegiate level, they're academically qualified, the students have to want to take it to that next level and maintain the passion for their own success as well."

In a district where parental open house attendance is sparse, game attendance is as well. Williams thinks that if more parents attend their children's games, there may be more of a reason for them to play, a better feeling about their own abilities and their own lives.

"I hope the parents give us a shot. To think of playing college sports but not being able to convince your family to come out to your games is tough ... so families are a key component to the overarching success of this program. "

What will the outcome of this project be? We all have to wait until the show airs this fall, but I am as excited as everyone else. As I run into students, at Almont, Washington and Harambee Parks, in the grocery stores, BNBL sites, at Little League games or (hopefully, no longer) funerals, we talk about what might happen at the school this fall and how they are keeping cool and safe in the summer heat. I remind them that there is a world out there that believes we cannot achieve, that we get handouts and that we don't work for what we get. I remind them that they cannot take opportunities for granted because they do not come often.

Then, as a parting gift, I remind them to stay up on their summer reading.

Corey J. Allen is an English instructor at TechBoston Academy and a frequent contributor to the high school section of ESPNBoston.com.

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