“Here they come!”
A group of men stand on the baseball field at 42nd Street and Dupont Avenue in North Minneapolis. Conversation flows between plans for the morning’s camp and the latest happenings in the world of baseball. The men’s knowledge of the sport and comfort with their roles for the day is clear when children as young as five begin to race along the fenceline. Pounding feet and squeals give way to teenagers who are perhaps too cool to run but arrive on the field and, when assigned their stations, quickly begin their drills.
This year marks the second summer that the JP4 Foundation, formerly the Blizzard Foundation, has hosted free summer baseball camps for youth in underserved communities in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The Foundation, established in the summer of 2016 by Adam Barta, operates under the knowledge that baseball is much more than a game. It is a vehicle for learning life lessons and fostering community, a sense of belonging, and opportunity.
Bigger than Baseball
The JP4 Foundation exists to carry forth the legacy of Johnny Price IV who passed away in 2015 at the age of eighteen. Lisa Price, Johnny’s mother, shared, “As a parent, you can only do so much in your child’s life, and as they get older, their peers become so important. Johnny’s baseball team took my son, who had always been a good kid, and they instilled the same values I had instilled in him: Treat people with respect. Treat everybody the way you want to be treated.” Barta had always wanted to start a foundation to increase access to the sport of baseball, and Johnny’s passing jump started the project.
When asked about the foundation’s mission, Executive Director Jeffrey Huth said, “We do baseball well, and we can contribute to the community through our strengths.” Summer baseball camps are one way the foundation seeks to contribute to youth and community through sport.
As is the case with most successful athletes, Huth spent his summers playing sports and attending athletic camps. As a former educator in urban communities, Huth recalls saying goodbye to students in June and, when welcoming them back to school in September, discovering that many of his students didn’t share his idyllic memories of summer. “Knowing that many of my former students had few positive activities to look forward to during the summer and knowing that one poor decision can cause a life to take a drastic turn, free summer baseball camps felt like a place where the JP4 Foundation could impact lives.“
Originally, Huth envisioned multiple one-day camps spread throughout the city with the idea that the foundation could impact as many kids as possible, two hundred or more. As he explored the idea, however, a question came up: “What if we impacted fifty kids over the course of eight weeks and built meaningful positive relationships?” Huth and his JP4 Foundation colleagues realized camps that offered more opportunity for growth and connection would ultimately be more valuable for campers and their communities.
Strength through Partnerships
Last summer’s camp at Battle Creek Middle School in St. Paul brought the game of baseball along with snacks and lunch to sixteen campers. This summer’s camps built on that success and amplified the strength of the program through partnerships with the Minneapolis Police Activity League and the Sanneh Foundation.
A national program, the Police Activity League was created to prevent juvenile crime and violence by giving youth a safe place to play, positive role models, and creative activities to engage in. Officer Tony Adams, Program Coordinator, describes children as “the backbone of the North Minneapolis community.” The PAL program supports their backbone through Brain and Body Camp, a program that utilizes sports and activities to give youth direction and skills and gives School Resource Officers an opportunity to continue to interact with students into the summertime. Similarly, the Sanneh Foundation seeks to serve children’s development needs by empowering youth and supporting education in and out of school. Both programs provide summer activities for youth free of charge.
Collaboration between the Police Activity League, the Sanneh Foundation, and the JP4 Foundation has resulted in ninety youth experiencing free summer baseball camp over eight weeks, a 500% increase in participation from last summer’s camp. Campers learn the fundamentals of baseball from experienced, qualified coaches, receive lunch, snacks, and water, and participate in activities that support personal growth facilitated by staff from the MindStrong Project. Every child receives a hat and a shirt, and if they’d like, they are given a ball and glove to keep at the end of the eight weeks. Over 98% of campers are children of color and the vast majority qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch at school.
At the beginning of the summer, over half of the campers had never played baseball before. More than half had never worn a glove, didn’t know how to properly hold a bat, and hadn’t played with a team. Baseball is expensive and players are predominantly white. This leaves little opportunity for children of color living in communities in poverty to access the sport.
Lisa Price recalled a conversation with her son as he came to understand the financial investment his parents were making so that he could participate, grow, and excel at the sport he loved: “What happens to the kids that can’t afford it?” His mom answered, “They can’t play.” Mrs. Price shared, “It drove him crazy that other kids couldn’t afford [baseball].” A story that has now become infamous among the JP4 Foundation community is the story of Johnny’s “missing” equipment. Johnny would come home without his glove or bat, claiming he’d lost them. After his passing, Mr. and Mrs. Price learned that Johnny had never lost his equipment; he’d given it to people that didn’t have their own.
Lonnie Robinson, club baseball coach, has been a part of the JP4 Foundation since the beginning and specifically would like to see more children of color in the sport. Robinson is committed to his role on the field as a player, and a coach, and as a Black man. “Sometimes, just to be honest, minority kids don’t play baseball very much. I grew up my whole life playing baseball, I played in college, I played professional baseball, and I only remember ever playing with one kid that looked like me.” Huth remembers his students, almost all of them teens of color, explaining their reason for not trying baseball: “I’m not White.”
According to Tony Adams, coordinator of the Minneapolis PAL programs, “Youth baseball went down in North Minneapolis for a number of years, but with the PAL program, we are bringing baseball back, bringing softball back for girls, and we are trying to teach some of the fundamentals.” Adams references the core values of PAL and Brain and Body Camp: “It’s not only basketball. It’s not only football. You have baseball. You have golf. You have other sports that you can participate in and be good at.”
A core question remains at the center of JP4 Foundation camps: How do we enhance the lives of youth through baseball? Huth references a hierarchy of needs: Kids need to feel safe, have friends, have community, have food, and feel healthy before they can develop self-actualization. “If the JP4 Foundation can support the base layers of the pyramid of needs while giving kids opportunities to engage with positive adult role models and learn life lessons, that’s what we hope for. If at the very end of it, they learn to be baseball players, that’s icing on the cake.”
Beyond providing lunch, water, snacks, and safe summer activity, the JP4 Foundation has collaborated with the MindStrong Project to ensure that campers are able to grow as people while learning the game of baseball. The MindStrong Project works with NFL, NHL, and MLB players to enhance their human experience and reached out to the foundation in hopes of bringing their programs to camp participants. Austin Hanson of MindStrong described the Diamond Series, a system built to help players build good habits, values, and a strong vision for the future. Hanson stated, “Baseball is just another avenue or platform or new activity for [campers] to learn from and apply what they learn to life.”
A Legacy Lives On
Every single coach on the field for the JP4 Foundation spoke to the life lessons and personal growth that can come through playing baseball, and their statements were echoed by youth participants. Foundation Coaches’ love of the game and passion shone through as they described how baseball can change people, echoing Johnny Price IV’s values, beliefs, and spirit.
Camp echoed with values of teamwork, community, and bringing people together. Teriona, age 10, said, “You have to have respect if you want to play. You have to be kind and you have a LOT of teamwork. We have to work together and cheer each other on.” Zay’Vontay, 15, learned that baseball is about community: “Teamwork is communicating with each other. It’s all about helping each other out, building confidence, and not letting teammates down.”
Andrew Woitas, one of Johnny Price IV’s coaches, has been with the foundation since its beginning. Woitas remembered, “Johnny was a “bringer together of people. I think seeing kids get to have the joy of baseball and high school and college players taking time out of their work to come help out–Johnny would be really proud.”
Lisa Price remembers her son’s love of team and community. “If he saw a kid struggling on the baseball field, he was the first one to go to help him.” She remembers a story that was shared with her after Johnny’s passing; as a senior baseball star at Lakeville South, Johnny took a freshman player under his wing. That young man accepted the MVP award this year. Mrs. Price described, “John John taking time for that young boy changed his whole trajectory.”
Baseball is indeed a game that can impart values that can change a child’s trajectory. Hanson of MindStrong stated, “Baseball is essentially a game of failure.” Lonnie Robinson explains, “In baseball, if you get a hit three out of ten times and miss seven out of ten times, you’re probably one of the best players. It teaches you about disappointment, and it teaches you how to get back up. ” Adrian, 18, a veteran Brain and Body camper and dedicated football player, described the patience that he has practiced while learning baseball. “I say, baseball, you have to be calm, and you have to be patient, and you have to have a good mentality. Baseball is a lot of pressure. If you don’t hit the ball, or you strike out, or if you’re playing defense, you have to be patient.” Ayana, 12, said she’s learned to “not give up…I have to move on from my mistakes and try again.”
Icing on the Cake
The JP4 Foundation believes that an interest in baseball at the end of camp is icing on the cake. As the camps support growth and interest in baseball, ripples of interest are already in motion. Charles Adams, Brain and Body coordinator, stated, “A lot of kids take the skills and apply them to what they do with their teams. It is a breath of fresh air, because we know that they’re learning and taking what they learn to everyday skills.” Audria, 14, is considering playing softball for her high school. “I wasn’t really thinking about it before this. I learned to play more, so now I’m ready to join.” According to Tony Adams, three campers had already joined a PAL baseball team. “You should see their skill set, the three kids were the most dominant players on the 12U team that we have this year…If you take this seriously enough, you can be good at it.”
JP4 Foundation Executive Director describes his favorite moment of camp: “When we see the kids walking away with their JP4 Foundation shirts, they are walking away and bringing Johnny’s legacy into their homes and their communities and carrying it forward. I want the Price family to be able to say, “This is because of my son.” As ninety youth leave baseball camp this summer and walk into their communities carrying a sense of unity, an understanding of the power of failure, the knowledge that they can right their mistakes, and maybe even a newfound love of baseball, the JP4 Foundation is certainly carrying Johnny’s legacy forward and building on his commitment to his team, community, and the game. In Lisa Price’s words, “There’s just something about this sport and the people who are involved in it.” As this summer’s camps come to a close, ninety more youth have been given the opportunity to grow, have fun, and maybe even come to love the game of baseball.