Reds' Home Base program helps student-athletes simulate college experience

June 20th, 2024

After a two-year hiatus, the Reds Community Fund (RCF) reintroduced its Home Base program for 42 local high school student-athletes.

Thirty members of the Reds Nike RBI baseball and softball program and 12 students from Cincinnati Public Schools participated in the three-day, two-night immersive college experience at the University of Cincinnati from June 17-19.

Made possible through a grant from the PNC Charitable Trust, Home Base provides incoming high school students of all grades with programming that focuses on college awareness and access, health and wellness, and leadership with the intent to propel student-athletes to the next level of success as scholars and leaders both on and off the field.

The concept for Home Base originated in 2017, and thanks to a three-year grant from Major League Baseball, the program launched in 2018. For the first two years, it was a five-day program in partnership with UC that focused on ACT test prep, baseball and softball skills, and personal development, with activities split between UC’s campus and the P&G MLB Cincinnati Reds Youth Academy. Between 40-50 student-athletes from CPS and other districts participated.

Home Base was forced to take a pause in 2020 due to COVID-19. It returned in 2021 but took place exclusively at the Reds Youth Academy with no overnight component due to lingering campus and dorm restrictions from the pandemic.

With other programming still demanding much of the RCF staff’s time and resources following COVID and the program needing to be re-evaluated with the changes in collegiate testing requirements, Home Base went away for a couple years. But when RCF Outreach Events and Education Coordinator Sara Kohls learned about Home Base after taking over the Community Fund’s educational department in the fall of 2022, she knew there was real value in the initiative and wanted to bring it back.

Sara and the Reds Community Fund team met with leaders from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Education, Criminal Justice, Human Services and Information Technology (CECH) to talk strategy. Program partner and CECH associate dean Kathie Maynard recommended the move from a standardized test focus to a leadership concept and had the ideal educator in mind, assistant professor of criminal justice, Dr. J.Z. Bennett. The Reds Community Fund also wanted to build a program more suitable to the student-athletes already participating in the Reds Nike RBI and RCF Scholars initiatives.

“When bringing it back, we thought this time it would be nice to include our RBI kids who are with us year-round so that after the fact, we could better evaluate the benefits of the program,” Kohls said. “But we also wanted to open it up to the public and still give other kids the opportunity to apply. So we decided to do this three-day model and keep it classroom-only since most kids are already getting that year-round programming through us and play in tournaments from Thursday to Sunday.”

Throughout the three days, the teenagers toured the Clifton campus, including the three major athletic facilities, and attended sessions and sample college courses ranging from potential majors and a full criminal justice class to yoga and mental health. The participants also let out some energy at the UC Campus Recreation Center, enjoyed a movie night, competed in fun activities, and experienced one of the marquee attractions on every college campus: the dining hall.

Striking a balance between informative and fun, a lot was packed into the first year back for Home Base.

“We spent over a year last year planning out all the different components and landed on really wanting to create what we call “major league citizens,” Bennett said. “In some of the classes we pushed the students to think about critical issues, and I was really excited to see how the students materialized with the information. We look forward to doing this year after year as we continue to think about how to create the next generation of leaders.”

The busy three days wrapped up with a banquet at Great American Ball Park on June 19. Parents joined their kids in the venue’s Bally Sports Club for dinner where the attendees heard from Kohls and Bennett along with RCF Executive Director Charley Frank. In addition, Reds players Stuart Fairchild, Jacob Hurtubise, Sam Moll and Carson Spiers had prerecorded a video where they answered questions and shared experiences and wisdom about their own development as high schoolers trying to find their collegiate and career paths.

Then it was time to hear from the kids themselves. The 42 student-athletes had been split up into four groups during portions of the week, each headed by four of Bennett’s former students who served as chaperones and offered their own guidance and advice along the way. Members of each group joined their chaperone on stage to share some of their favorite parts about Home Base.

“I liked being able to see the campus in a different light. I’d been on UC’s campus a lot before, but being able to go in the buildings and see the classrooms, it’s so much different than high school,” Walnut Hills High School rising freshman Amelia Bennett said.

“This week was incredible,” Walnut Hills rising junior Evie Denen added. “I made a lot of new friends, because I have not been a part of RBI before this experience. So I would love to try out in July. And it was my first time being on a college campus for more than a couple hours. Being able to see the campus and how a college class works, it was an incredible week, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

The night wrapped up with each participant receiving a certificate for completing the program and taking a group photo to commemorate a successful return of RCF’s Home Base.