(Today’s piece is the first of Ruling Sports’ “Pro Bono” series. To learn more about “Pro Bono,” click here).
Jason Heyward. Andruw Jones. Dexter Fowler.
As a former professional baseball player with the Chicago Cubs organization and current CEO of Diamond Directors, C.J. Stewart has helped develop some of today’s biggest names and brightest young talent in Major League Baseball.
However, if anyone, Stewart recognizes that the fees associated with the services he provides to clients through Diamond Directors are unable to be paid by the large majority of the inner-city youth in Atlanta, where Stewart and Diamond Directors are based.
Growing up in the Hollywood Courts housing project in Atlanta, Stewart was a talented baseball player. However, for financial reasons, his only opportunity to be exposed to the sport was through his high school team.
Then, T.J. Wilson entered the picture.
Wilson, a former Atlanta Police Officer with a passion for baseball, had children who attended high school with Stewart. Wilson’s love for baseball drove him to spend many days at the high school’s baseball field. Struck by Stewart’s talent, Wilson ended up taking the young Stewart under his wing and fully exposed him to all of the sport’s opportunities.
Stewart explained the lengths Wilson went to ensure that Stewart’s talents were perfected and shown to the world: “He picked me up from school, fed me, made sure I did my homework, drove me 45 minutes to an hour away to a training facility and brought me home three days a week.” Not only did Wilson give Stewart the gift of his time and dedication, but according to Stewart, he “spent thousands per year, out of his pocket,” to make sure that Stewart received thorough player development training and outside opportunities necessary to cultivate and expose his talent.
The story of Wilson taking action to develop the baseball talents and character of a young man is one shared by many in the Atlanta community. Stewart estimates that Wilson helped 300 young men in Atlanta realize their possibilities through baseball. However, one story stands out in particular to Stewart.
As a former Atlanta Police Officer, Wilson often drove through various Atlanta neighborhoods to speak to kids. One night, during a drive through the Red Oak housing project, he stopped and talked to a group of kids. After leaving, he had driven a fair distance away from the group of kids, when his back windshield was shattered by a rock thrown at it.
Wilson’s first instinct was to do what anyone else would: drive back to the group of kids and find out who threw the rock that just shattered his windshield. However, Wilson had a motive other than finding someone to reimburse him for his windshield. Wilson recognized that the kid who threw the rock far enough to hit his windshield and hard enough to break it, had a serious arm and could be developed as a baseball player.
The kid who threw the rock would go on to play in the Major Leagues. He would win four Gold Gloves and the World Series.
Like Grissom, the time, energy and funds Wilson and others invested into player and character development for Stewart, paid off. Stewart would eventually attend Georgia State University and play in the Chicago Cubs organization.
However, despite the accolades Stewart achieved as a baseball player, it would be a safe bet that Stewart’s current endeavour would be the achievement making his former mentor the proudest.
Stewart currently serves as the C.E.O. for L.E.A.D., a nonprofit organization in Atlanta, Georgia founded by Stewart and his wife, Kelli, to “. . . impact. . .the number of inner city middle and high school student-athletes playing competitive baseball to prepare them to compete for college baseball scholarships.” Recognizing the need for player development outside of high school baseball in order for players to compete at higher levels of the sport, along with the inability of inner-city youth to afford such player development opportunities, Stewart created L.E.A.D. to do what Wilson did for him years before: mentor young men and develop their baseball talent. “This is the best way to say ‘thank you,'” Stewart said.
Stewart explains L.E.A.D., which stands for “Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct” as being “an opportunity for the Atlanta community to invest in student-athletes who have a passion for baseball.” Currently, L.E.A.D. grants 60 scholarships to inner-city youth in Atlanta to become “Ambassadors” of the organization. These Ambassadors are not only given extensive baseball training, but also engage in leadership opportunities, educational and career development, and community outreach projects.
L.E.A.D.’s impact on the Atlanta community is nothing short of impressive.
The high school graduation rate in Atlanta was 69 percent in 2009. L.E.A.D. boasts a 100 percent graduation rate.
One recent high school graduation success story stands out to Stewart.
Two years ago, a young man tried out to be a L.E.A.D. Ambassador. However, at the time, he did not make the cut, because Stewart did not feel that the young man was ready for the “mental responsibility” involved with being an Ambassador. L.E.A.D. Ambassadors are not selected for the program solely for their baseball talent. Stewart constantly stresses that his main purpose in founding L.E.A.D. was to help young men attain a college education. Thus, L.E.A.D. requires its students to maintain a “C” average in school, attend all classes, and participate in numerous leadership and community activities.
Although the young man did not become an Ambassador the first go-around, he tried out again this past year and became an Ambassador. Stewart later learned that this young man was homeless. His attendance at L.E.A.D. tryouts twice, coupled with his homelessness demonstrate this young man’s resilience. That resilience was further demonstrated this Spring, when without a home to call his own, the young man graduated from high school.
L.E.A.D. graduates 100 percent of its student-athletes from high school.
Not impressed yet?
100 percent of the L.E.A.D. Ambassadors go on to college. 87 percent of those Ambassadors are at college on a baseball scholarship. The first L.E.A.D. Ambassador will graduate from college this upcoming school year. It’s safe to say that Stewart and others involved with L.E.A.D. will be at his graduation ceremony.
The young man discussed above, who was homeless when he became an Ambassador? He’ll be attending college this Fall, too.
L.E.A.D. sends 100 percent of its Ambassadors to college.
When asked what he envisions for L.E.A.D. over the next five years, it becomes clear that Stewart’s true mission with L.E.A.D. is to provide young men with educational opportunities which will provide for them later in life. While many of these opportunities come on a baseball diamond, Stewart clearly understands the importance of formal education in bettering the lives of individuals.
Stewart notes that his main goal is ensuring that 100 percent of L.E.A.D. Ambassadors continue to graduate from high school and go on to college.
He also wants all former L.E.A.D. Ambassadors to be working in the career field of their choice. L.E.A.D. makes this a possibility by granting the young men career training and networking opportunities.
Stewart also hopes that the young men will follow his example, and after graduating from high school or college, come back and mentor other young men in the Atlanta community.
And finally, like a true athlete, Stewart says that he hopes that a high school baseball championship in the State of Georgia is won by a team in Atlanta over the next five years.
If you are interested in supporting L.E.A.D., there are several ways you can become involved:
1. Become a member of the L.E.A.D. Tailgate Club. Through the Tailgate Club, you can give financially to L.E.A.D. According to Stewart, providing 60 young men with scholarships to participate as Ambassadors of L.E.A.D. costs $50,000.00. Neither Stewart nor his wife take a salary from the foundation.
2. Through the L.E.A.D. Tailgate Club, you can also find ways to volunteer with L.E.A.D. Perhaps you can mentor a young man interested in your career field. Or, you can host a baseball clinic. Maybe, you can just get out and support these young men from the stands. Stewart noted that many of the young men’s parents work long hours and are unable to attend their son’s games. It’d be great to get a big crowd behind these young men, cheering them on the baseball diamond and as they march through life.
3. Mentor someone in your own community. While L.E.A.D. is currently only located in Atlanta, there are opportunities to mentor in every community in the United States. Take an active interest in the life of a young person and help guide them down the path that got you to where you are today.