In 1998, Rob and Amy Castañeda moved into the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, a primarily Mexican community on the west side of Chicago. Shortly thereafter, their lives were threatened by a local gang which was very active on their block. Twice the gang attempted to burn down the Castañeda’s home, shattering their front window with bottles, after learning that Rob had talked to the police when he witnessed a crime by its members. Instead of leaving the neighborhood, the Castañedas responded by getting more involved in the community.
Amy, who had been teaching at a local elementary school, transferred to another school closer to their home, and Rob started coaching the school’s basketball team. In order to compete, the basketball players needed extra practice, so Rob opened the school gym on Saturdays. Access to basketball courts in the neighborhood was restricted due to gang boundary lines, so word of a safe place to play spread quickly. The kids on the team asked if they could bring relatives, then friends. Soon many other kids from even outside Little Village wanted to join. It wasn’t long before 70 youth were regularly coming for open gyms. One suggested that Rob start hosting tournaments, and the gym was filled with neighborhood kids most evenings and weekends even through the summer months.
A community was formed within that school space—a safe place where rival gang members played together, and kids sat on the sidelines talking about life. Friendships were made across racial and cultural lines. The relationships with youth that began on a court grew deeper and spread throughout the neighborhood. Thriving under the influence of positive role models, youth discovered how to participate in their community in a responsible way. Beyond the Ball was born.
In 2005, a new principal came to the elementary school where the Castañedas held their programs. She felt the activities the Castañedas were running were open to too many community members, and thus, should not be happening on school property. Despite pleas from many parents, students and leading community members, all of the programs were shut down. This was a turning point for Beyond the Ball. Not wanting to lose the relationships and community impact, Rob and Amy, along with a now-established group of volunteers, attempted to keep some of the programming alive at a local high school, but the cost of renting space was high. However, through the struggle to find space for programming, it became clear to many that what was happening was not just basketball tournaments and open gyms—the community impact was well beyond that. Relationships were being built; lives were being changed. And so, Beyond the Ball became an official non-profit capable of applying for financial assistance to run programming and employ community members.
Amy transferred to another local elementary school, where Beyond the Ball began offering after school sports programs. These would become Beyond the Ball’s cornerstone Bitty Ball program. Immediately popular with students, Bitty Ball taught not only athletic skills, but life skills. The concepts taught at Bitty Ball—Community, Leadership, Perseverance, Responsibility, Respect, Teamwork—are the values represented in Beyond the Ball. Those values are demonstrated across all Beyond the Ball programs. Children learn them. As they grow, they begin to experience them. In high school, they start to model the values. And as adults, they embody them and pass them along to the next generation. Not only are the lives of the individuals improved; the community is strengthened.
Beyond the Ball includes youth not only from Little Village, but the neighboring community of North Lawndale as well. North Lawndale has many of the same socio-economic issues as Little Village, but is almost entirely African-American. Traditionally, the two neighborhoods do not mix. But they do, successfully, in Beyond the Ball. Over 1,500 youth are served each year by Beyond the Ball programming. And while new relationships are formed each year, relationships have been maintained with those who have participated from the beginning. In fact, many of those early participants run the programs that exist today.