New youth facility gets J-Hey's helping hand

August 11th, 2021

CHICAGO -- The overgrown lot off North Laramie Avenue, situated near Grace+Peace Church in Chicago's Austin neighborhood, had growing puddles across the gravel as rain fell on Wednesday morning.

The organizers of the day's groundbreaking ceremony -- one for a 10-acre campus with professional-level sports facilities and an education center -- scrambled to move things indoors.

"We've had plenty of storms," said Donnita Travis, the founder and executive director of By The Hand Club for Kids. "Storms don't get in our way."

Travis was referring not just to the elements, but to the challenges faced on Chicago's West Side and along the road to this day. With the help of a donation by Cubs outfielder , along with the assistance of the Chicago Fire Foundation, Intentional Sports and other parties, a vision was becoming reality.

In the heart of an area most Chicagoans know for its crime rates, a massive youth center was being born. By The Hand will have a club serving more than 400 students on the site. The complex is expected to serve more than 25,000 people annually through sports, education and wellness programs.

And the 150,000-plus-square-foot facility will include the Jason Heyward Baseball Academy.

"To be able to bring something like this to this city, it's huge," said Heyward, whose parents and wife were in attendance for Wednesday's ceremony. "Any inch you give us in this city, we take it and we can do so many special things.

"I just can't wait to see what the future looks like for some of the kids that I've already had a chance to talk to."

Heyward already has a history with the By The Hand Club for Kids, having worked with the organization in 2020 as part of a group that brought an open-air market to life in Austin. The Austin Harvest is run by youth from By The Hand and provides much-needed groceries to a neighborhood lacking in resources.

Heyward will now play a role in shaping the programming at the new facility's baseball programming. As part of the event, Heyward caught a ceremonial first pitch from a young ballplayer from By The Hand's Columbus Park team, which recently won a league title.

"This is better than the first day of school, first day of being a Major Leaguer," Heyward said. "Because you see the vision, you see the dream. We had Zoom calls about this, and I remember getting the chills talking about myself, my wife and I, being a part of this."

Heyward said he was also happy that the facility goes well beyond just baseball.

There will be outdoor and indoor fields, including Chicago's only FIFA-regulation turf arena for year-round indoor sports. More than 100 community hours will be offered per week, and fitness and mental health programs will be available.

The facility will support 75 permanent jobs, as well as camps, tournaments and adult leagues that will help generate revenue to sustain the complex and with the goal to keep the programs affordable and accessible.

And it is all coming to a lot that once was home to a paint factory and has since stood vacant for three decades.

"There is nothing like this in Chicago," Travis said. "You put all of this together, I could just cry tears of joy, because it's going to have such a huge impact on our children, on this neighborhood and on the city of Chicago."

During the event, Illinois Rep. LaShawn Ford (House of Representatives) donned a Cubs hat to cheers from the crowd, including Heyward, who smiled wide, stood and clapped. By the time Heyward spoke to the crowd, he emphasized how Chicago is now his home.

"I'm proud to say I officially in the mail got my Illinois license," Heyward said to cheers. "Just to let you know I'm not playing."

Heyward wants his lasting impact in the city that gave him "new life" to go beyond anything he did on a baseball field, including helping the Cubs win the World Series.

"It's very important," Heyward said. "I hope to raise kids in this community one day. And I want them to see that kind of legacy. Yes, I have played baseball. I was on a team that won the World Series. ... But my wife and I take a lot of pride in giving back to the community, helping people out."