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YEDA Ain’t Just Sports: A Letter from the Founder

For those of you who work in the non-profit arena, my testimony will not come as any surprise. I guess that I have been a little “sleep at the wheel” thinking that the work that YEDA was doing would be obvious even to the most casual observer, but I was wrong.

Denied Funding: A Moment of Reflection

No different than many other nonprofit organizations, funding is needed for sustainability. Currently, much of our work is self-funded, but we are actively applying for grants. Recently, I received feedback regarding funding that our board was seeking, and the commentary provided from the grantor was that “you just look like a sports program, so we cannot support the effort”.

Being completely transparent, I did not react well to the insight provided and I immediately felt defensive with a burning desire to try and control the narrative. I reacted, called the web designer, and asked that they begin to reposition content on the site, so that sports would no longer be prominently positioned.

In retrospect, the reaction, and the direction I gave was not a good idea. I would only be addressing a symptom of a problem, not the true issue that YEDA is faced with.

Yes, we need to make sure that we do a better job of telling the YEDA story, but we also need to be more purposeful in strategically telling it to those who might be interested. This would be those who truly have an affinity for community.

Building our Youth Through Partnerships

The goal of this blog is not to compensate for those who will only allow themselves to look at YEDA in a vacuum and draw unfavorable conclusions because it involves sports. A critique of what we do and how we do it is fine, but we need collaborations, partnerships, strategies, or solutions that will help the organization move forward.

I would like to share a few facts that reflect our work and approach the last 18 months:

  • We have a program that currently has an emphasis on sports

  • We have tripled the number of youth enrolled in our programs in less than two years

  • More kids involved translates into those same youth having less idle time

  • For the last two years we have attempted to initiate a tutoring program, financial literacy program, mentoring program in partnership with park districts and Big Brother Big Sister of Chicago, along with several other efforts.

  • To date the initiative that has garnered the most interest has been sports.

  • We currently service 99% African American youth and we do have a plan to diversify our audience so that it is representative of other communities that exist in the Southland of Chicago.

Athletics Supports Future Success

If you have no interest, or have never played sports, or if you subscribe to the negativity of how society often positions athletes (professional athletes represent less than 1% of the US population), then it is easy, or convenient to discount the impact that sports can have in a child’s life.

Fact 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs were athletes. Let me share some facts about athletes:

One study, published in the journal Pediatrics found that children who participated in organized sports had higher levels of academic achievement and were more likely to graduate from high school.

The study also found that these children had lower rates of substance abuse and were more likely to go on to college.

Reach the Youth Where They’re At

Another headwind is the notion that “all our kids want to do is play basketball, be rappers and play video games”. Yes, just like me, you may have either thought or participated in those discussions. Probably more times than not, this reference has been made in relation to our African American boys.

I am embarrassed, remorseful and I apologize for subscribing to this attack on the youth and their current tendencies. After all, as a child I wanted to be a professional basketball player, because among the youth in the community, athletes were held in such high esteem.

Additionally, as I espoused such mindless banter about youth today, I did not have the data to support my contention, nor did the folks who I was in dialogue with, and I was merely subscribing to a societal theory or myth, and one that is crippling to our community. More importantly if I had enough concern to complain about it, why wasn’t I attempting to do something about it?

From Hopeless to Inspired

I think that we should be rewarding the youth behavior that we want to see and if we reframed the narrative, I contend we can find inspiration in the fact that these kids are aspiring to be like the athletes who are constantly paraded in front of them (not their fault that this is all that they see).

The great news is that they HAVE a dream and want to achieve something, despite the reality that they live in a world where they are surrounded with hopelessness. Consider the alternative:

In an article in the Atlantic in 2022 is referenced that the “United States is experiencing an extreme teenage mental health crisis. From 2009-2021, the share of American high school students who say they feel “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26 percent to 44 percent according to a new CDC study. This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded”.

In 2019, 3.8 million youth ages 12-17 reported experiencing a major depressive episode (Youth and the Juvenile Justice System 2022 National Report).

If we want them to aspire to be something different, then we need to expose them to something different, but we need to get their attention to facilitate that opportunity. We have found that our sports programs allow us to do that.

We are currently exploring ways to expand the thinking of our youth regarding careers in sports and in gaming. We will be hosting activities soon that will support this thrust. Also, these kids aren’t any different than you and I. Didn’t we want to be like somebody in our family or someone we saw in the media?

As we matured and had more experiences, most times our desires changed, but we started somewhere. We must stop the contempt for these young people’s dreams to effectively reach and mentor them to succeed in life.

YEDA Founding Principles

YEDA was founded on a premise that we would provide opportunities for youth to strengthen mind, body and spirit and that position has not changed. To accomplish our goals and objectives we needed a platform that allowed us to attract families and their youth.

This is not the end of the story; it is only the beginning. We will continue to leverage the sports as an enabler to help us initiate other tactics of our plan because it is working. The information below reflects some of the outcomes of the work that we’ve done in the Southland of Chicago:

  • Our sports programs have afforded us the opportunity to play a part in the lives of youth from various communities and within the last 11 months, we have increased our reach from approximately 40 youth in 2022, to a forecast of 150+ by the end of 2023.

  • For each of our sports program there is mentoring component on an individual basis and at the group level.

  • We’ve leverage sports to introduce future education and opportunities to our youth, that they may not have otherwise been exposed to (just recently completed a college tour with 22 young men).

  • Our interaction with families and their trust in what we do has allowed us to become advocates for youth who have experienced some challenges (YEDA has done work with IDOC, Reform Alliance and others in the community of behalf of youth).

  • The preparation that we have provided youth in our program has resulted in many of those youth being members of their school teams, therefore keeping them active and minimizing their idle time.

  • YEDAs commitment to the community has helped us foster an environment that has allowed us to develop relationships and partnerships, be philanthropic and create a platform to impact change (Big Brother Big Sister of Chicago, Richton Park and Park Forest Park Districts, Governors State University, United Way and others).

Get Involved

I am not unrealistic, and I know that not everyone will subscribe to our mission, and vision, nor will everyone agree with our approach. For those of you who are interested in helping us drive change for young people in the community, please reach out and let us know you want to help.

No effort is too small, and we welcome the support. If you have some ideas on how we can further our cause, we want to hear about that as well. If you’re willing or able to make a donation, we appreciate your support.

Greg Ellison, Founder

Youth Education Development Academy

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