NEW ORLEANS -- Molding young lives takes time, energy and effort.
The Urban Youth Academy in New Orleans is still growing into its own significant footprint and subtly altering the lives of everyone in its orbit. The facility staged its grand opening in 2012, and in less than four years, it's grown into an operation that serves thousands of kids in this baseball-rich community.
Eddie Davis, the manager of the New Orleans UYA, said the days are long and rewarding at the academy, and he loves the satisfaction he gets from helping kids reach their goals. Davis, who is the first to get to the academy and often the last to leave, said Thursday that he can see tangible signs of success.
"You see kids grow mentally and physically. Mentally is the part that impresses you," he said. "You see the kids clown around when they come in. They may not buy into what you're selling, but over time, they start to listen. You see them develop and mature. It's almost like a parent. You're proud of them."
Davis, who presides over the academy's baseball and vocational programs, has seen the facility grow to serve about 2,500 active members of the community. Davis estimated that the academy had just 25 daily participants in its first season, but he said it's more like 70 kids on an everyday basis now.
And while the academy is even busier in the summer, Davis is impressed by the dedication he's seen from the youngsters on hand. Some of these kids are not just going to school but playing sports for their hometown, and then they come out to get some extra work at the academy.
Paul Poche, one of the academy's instructors, has a unique perspective.
Poche coached baseball at nearby St. Augustine High School, but he's given that up to spend more time at the academy. Poche's son and daughter both play at the academy, and he's thrilled at not just the level of instruction they receive, but also the way they're taught to go about their business.
"We have a tendency to make things complicated. Just like life," Poche said. "When we get out here, we want to make sure that everything is as uncomplicated as possible. We want to do things the fundamental way. Most of the coaches here have played at a high level or been around baseball at a high level. There's very few guys that specialize. We have a pitching coach, but pretty much everyone else works at all planes of instruction. We teach catching, pitching, infield, outfield, baserunning. We do it all."
And that's just the baseball department. Thanks to Davis, the academy has drawn out a serious emphasis on education. The kids are offered an opportunity to prepare for the SAT and ACT exams, and they're required to turn in report cards and transcripts to the academy. If those kids are carrying less than a B average in any given course, said Davis, they're required to do schoolwork to hit the field.
The academy routine has developed into three distinct seasons -- spring, summer and offseason -- said Davis, and each one carries its own routine. There's no pitching allowed in the offseason, for instance, and the schedule is a little bit different when most of the kids have school as part of their day.
Now, with school in session, Davis said the kids don't arrive until about 3 p.m. An average day begins with warmups, stretching and 30 minutes of fielding drills. The players move on to hit after that. In the offseason, said Davis, the kids also go through an extra session of conditioning drills. It's a demanding schedule even for kids that love the game, but it winds up yielding tangible results.
"In my experience, from age 6 all the way through 12, it's fun. And you're learning," Poche said. "By the time you get to 12 and 13, that's when you start separating. The field gets bigger, the kids get faster, the pitching gets harder. Kids will stop dropping off if they don't really like the sport. The thing you find with the kids that keep going is they're the kids that have fun. And if they're not having fun, it could be for various reasons. Maybe their skill set isn't enough and they're not doing well. But for the kids that have fun with it, their skill set keeps progressing and they're around people that keep teaching them something."
Brandon Watson, a junior at St. Augustine, is one of those kids who has grown the most. Watson said he started coming to the academy from the outset, and he said he's improved defensively and at the plate. Coming to the academy is a privilege, he said, and one he really appreciates.
"You get to come here and work on everything you need," he said. "They've got a great coaching staff and they'll tell you all the fundamentals of the game. They really get you focused into the game, and I really enjoy playing. I've loved baseball since I was a kid, but this gave me the extra push that I need to be successful. Even though I have school practice, I still enjoy coming out here and working."
Watson, who hopes to play in college, said he was a dead pull hitter when he first enrolled at the academy, but now he's matured to use the whole field. He's also improved by leaps and bounds on his defensive fundamentals and in turning double plays, and he's loved every minute of it.
"I'd advise anyone who has a passion for the game to come out here," he said. "It really helps you a lot. All the tools are here, and you get people who not only talk to you about baseball, but they teach you life lessons. I want to play in college, but I have to do my part here first. I'm focused on the now."
That attitude doesn't just come from the players; it starts with the instructors and radiates outward.
Lawrence Burl, one of the academy's volunteer instructors, isn't far removed from his own school days. Burl, 22, donates time as the academy's conditioning coach and said he preaches mental, physical and spiritual training. Day by day, he's helping these kids keep their minds and bodies right.
"I come out here and volunteer time out of the kindness of my heart," he said. "I'm not looking for a dollar. This is what I do. I also volunteer my time with the young men at St. Mary's Academy. I'm doing 10-man jobs as a one-man guy. I'm coming over here to live out the same journey with these young men."
The UYA recently started T-ball instruction for kids between 5 and 7 years old, and Davis hopes those kids will grow with the academy and keep coming all the way through their high school years. Davis frequently has his son in attendance at the academy, which helps keep everything in simple clarity.
The same is also true for Poche, whose son plays baseball and whose daughter is an aspiring softball player. Poche sees the academy both from the lens of an instructor and a parent, and he loves the many ways the facility inspires his children to be better students and athletes.
But in the end, said Poche, they're still kids, and sports aren't much if they aren't fun.
"I push that to make sure they're having fun, to make sure it's not that much of a job," he said. "You have to look at it as a job in terms of your work ethic. But you don't have to look at it as a job in terms of, 'It's something that I've got to do.' It's got to be something you want to do and that you enjoy doing."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com.