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Houston's UYA celebrates Family Fun Day

HOUSTON -- Anita Nelling had walked past the Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy at Sylvester Turner Park thousands of times.

The 34-year-old lifelong Houstonian lives just three blocks away from the park, a diamond in the inner-city neighborhood of Acres Homes. But of all the times she wondered about the park, she never ventured inside.

Until Saturday, that is.

Nelling's 7-year-old son, Tremaine Sampson, had been raving about the Fifth Annual Family Fun Day at the UYA for weeks, and he woke her up at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday to hold his mother to her promise that they would finally go.

Once inside, Sampson got the sparkle in his eye that Houston Urban Youth Academy director Daryl Wade strives for.

"Mama, can we start coming here more?" Sampson asked. "I want to play baseball."

Sampson's fun-filled day included a trip to the batting cages, running the bases and watching Texas Southern University take on Prairie View A&M, two historically black universities loaded with talent.

"That's one of the benefits of the festival," Wade said. "Not only can we bring the community together in a really unique way, but we can also introduce baseball as a way to get the kids involved. When people come and see what we have going here at the state-of-the-art academy, they see that it's one of the best-kept secrets in Houston."

The Family Fun Day drew more than 10,000 locals to Sylvester Turner Park last year, which celebrated the one-year anniversary of the Urban Youth Academy in Houston, and Wade projected as many as 15,000 on hand at Saturday's event. When this much exposure is put on the park, Wade said the benefits are immeasurable.

The park pulled out all the stops for Saturday's festival.

More than 11,000 drinks were available, including 7,000 bottles of water. Sausages-on-a-stick, turkey legs and hot dogs were some of the most readily enjoyed lunches served hot off the grill.

Hundreds of young children also took part in the MLB "Wanna Play?" initiative, which strives to highlight the fun side of baseball through interactive events such as batting cages, radar guns and other games.

All refreshments, games and entertainment, which included three musical concert stages for jazz, blues and zydeco, were available for free to all in attendance on the warm and breezy day.

The event is aimed at building community around the nucleus of baseball.

The Houston Urban Youth Academy currently has more than 1,300 young, aspiring baseball players registered in its youth leagues, and Wade has made it a personal goal to reach 1,700 by this summer.

"We truly believe in the power of baseball in resurrecting inner-city communities like this," Wade said. "Being that this is my home and where I grew up, it's my dream to build this up as much as possible and strive for greatness."

With the recent changing of ownership in the Houston Astros franchise, Wade admitted to originally being unsure of the future of the Houston Urban Youth Academy under his new boss, Astros owner Jim Crane.

But upon his first meeting with Crane, Wade was convinced -- the investment that MLB has made in the Acres Homes community and the Houston Urban Youth Academy can only grow from here.

"When you have an owner that's behind you the way Mr. Crane is, the sky's the limit," Wade said. "He's very passionate about making sure our city's kids are playing baseball, and I'm really proud that he's 100 percent behind us."

If the dream of the Houston Urban Youth Academy is realized, young men like Sampson will be given all of the opportunities and facilities it takes to have a chance to one day play in nearby Minute Maid Park, for the Astros or another big league team.