Building Dreams in Baltimore
Leadership Through Athletics
By Sutton R. Stokes
The Grace brothers are back, and that's good news for their hometown of Lansdowne, Md., an inner suburb of Baltimore that doesn't get a lot of good news these days. Crisscrossed by disused train tracks and overshadowed by the access ramps and overpasses of a nearby interstate highway, this once cheery neighborhood has taken on some of the qualities that previously drove residents of downtown Baltimore to seek refuge here: too few jobs, too many splintered families and too many kids with nothing to do. On a recent Saturday, police cars prowled the narrow streets, hunting for yet another suspect in yet another shooting.
But even as the police went about their grim business outside, a very different Saturday was unfolding inside the Leadership Through Athletics building, a nonprofit sports facility that opened its doors in December on the neighborhood's eastern edge. Sneakers squeaked and excited shouts rang out as two teams of neighborhood teens faced off in an indoor basketball game. The court was a blur of bright team t-shirts and eager, straining young faces, while a volunteer coach and a referee hovered attentively on the sidelines.
"People were complaining about kids hanging on the streets at two, three o'clock in the morning," explains Lansdowne native and United Parcel Service executive Patrick Grace, who—with his brother, Michael, a real estate attorney—founded Leadership Through Athletics. "Well, that's exactly what we're trying to fix. If we get this center up and running, instead of those kids hanging on the streets at two-thirty in the morning, they're sleeping, because they were in the gym or they have to get up early for practice, and they're hanging around with positive role models who aren't gang members."
Spend a few minutes talking to the Grace brothers about the goals and philosophy behind Leadership Through Athletics, and it becomes clear just how passionately committed they are to their project. They have to be—after all, they broke ground on the 16,250 square-foot facility without a single cent of outside funding, financing it entirely on a personal line of credit. Though their full-time development director (one of only two paid staff members) has been soliciting and obtaining public- and private-sector donations ever since, the center's financial future is uncertain, to say the least.
"We thought we were going to build this gym for about $750,000," Michael says. "We wound up building it for $2.5 million, and that was with cutting about $300,000 out of the budget."
Completed in the fall of 2004, the red, white and blue building boasts two indoor basketball courts, a basement complex of batting cages (with a real dirt mound for pitchers), four locker rooms, a training room, a concession stand and an office. The largest non-recreational area is an education center and library, where wiring has been run and table space cleared for a pending donation of a dozen computer workstations. As impressive as the shiny, new basketball courts are, it's this education center, and the thinking behind it, that is the key to the Grace brothers' vision.
"It's all about making sure the kids understand that, at the end of the day, you can't rely on a basketball to make a living," Patrick explains. "You've got to get your education. You've got to get to college somehow."
With that $2.5 million debt to service, some of the center's programming is necessarily designed to generate revenue. The basement batting cages are rented by the hour to local baseball coaches eager for foul-weather workout space, and various youth and adult basketball leagues gladly pay to use the handsome, wood-floored indoor courts. But the intramural teams that were facing off on that recent Saturday are the real point of the project as far as Patrick and Michael are concerned. The neighborhood kids play and are coached for free, in return for helping out with facility upkeep. They also can enroll in a free referee-apprenticeship program, working toward a professional license. Upcoming projects include providing recreation programming for area youth charities and a business internship program for high school students, in addition to expanding the center's operations to include intramural leagues in additional sports.
As altruistic as all of this sounds, Patrick is the first to concede that he wasn't always so concerned about young people drawn to the street corner and the company of gangs.
"I looked at street kids as punks," he admits. His attitude changed several years ago when he participated in a UPS program that placed him in a month-long community service project on Chicago's desolate South Side.
"I saw so much ugliness," Patrick remembers. "It changed my whole life. When I came back here, I realized they aren't punks, they're a product of the environment. If you grow up and you get no education and your only role model is the drug dealer…" Patrick shakes his head. "We set these kids up to fail."
Once Patrick and Michael had decided that they wanted to try to help young people like the ones Patrick had met in Chicago, the decision to locate in Lansdowne was an obvious one.
"We grew up here," Michael says. "Our parents still live up the street. We thought we couldn't have a better scenario than to come back to Lansdowne and give it a shot in the arm."
Now, the only question is whether the project can survive its startup debt.
"If we run this thing extremely well, the best we can probably do is break even," Patrick says. "The only way we're going to pay down the debt is through support. It's scary, but what can I do? This is like my mission in life now."
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Leadership Through Athletics, Inc.: 410-737-2117
or visit www.LeadershipThroughAthletics.org