ATLANTA — A former professional baseball player born and raised in one of Atlanta’s most dangerous neighborhoods and his wife of 23 years are using America’s pastime to teach Atlanta’s youth how to hit homeruns in the game of life.
C.J. Stewart, who grew up in Hollywood Brooks and starred in baseball at Westlake High School, and his wife, Kelli, are the co-founders of L.E.A.D. (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct). The Atlanta-based nonprofit was started in 2007 as a way to empower African-American teenage boys to lead and transform their city.
“We are the navy seals of youth development,” said CJ Stewart, who was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1994 and 1996. " We are committing to making sure we are developing a legion of consequential leaders in this city.”
“Our mission as a sports-based youth development organization is to use the sport of baseball to help black boys in Atlanta overcome crime, poverty and racism,” added Kelli Stewart.
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Kelli and C.J. are tasked with multiple roles, including general manager and scout, but unlike a Major League GM, who is always searching for the next top prospect, this team is taking the complete opposite approach when it comes to scouting talent.
“We scout the counted out; that’s Black boys six through 12 grade in Atlanta Public Schools who are underperforming in the areas of grades, attendance and behavior,” Kelli said.
In November, Channel 2 got exclusive access to L.E.A.D.’s new facility in Atlanta’s historic West End neighborhood, where more than two dozen teens from all across the city had gathered for an evening of baseball, homework and free meals.
“It’s more than just baseball, said Quavious Hancock, a junior at Douglas High School who recently became an Ambassador. An Ambassador is an honor that’s earned by those who are focused and committed to the non profit’s four pillars: athletics, academics, civic engagement and commerce.
“They are teaching us the way of life as Black young men and really improving our life skills,” Hancock said. “it just gives you all the confidence in the world and it makes you feel good about yourself.”
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But building confidence in these kids isn’t always easy, especially for those who have had to overcome traumatic life experiences.
“You gotta understand that the world they live in, a mistake can cost you your life,” said Kelli. “We have to teach the lesson that mistakes are feedback and then we gotta adjust "
That’s why they motivate these teens to take the field against some of the best talent in the state because at the end of the day, it’s not about the score -- it’s about learning important life lessons
“Those standards that we have are high,” said C.J. “The expectation is clear and the accountability is swift.”
“A lot of people think with C.J.’s background that we are here to produce Major League Baseball players,” added Kelli. “If that happens, then great, but our goal is to have our ambassadors who are going to be the future mayor, city council president and who will go on to be a superintendent.”
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And so far, the results speak for themselves.
“For young men who complete L.E.A.D.’s Ambassador program, 100% have graduated from high school, 93% have enrolled into college, 90% have received college scholarship opportunities and 14% have entered the military or workforce,” according to the non-profit’s website.
The pandemic hasn’t stopped Kelli and C.J. from continuing their work in the community. In addition to baseball, they’re also helping to provide meals for families in need. For more information on how you can help, check out their website https://www.lead2legacy.org/.