By Melanie Williams
When the Bridgeport Caribe Youth Leaders (BCYL) celebrated its first opening day back in May 2004, no one in attendance could have imagined the amount of children, many of them Latinos, who would benefit from the program over the next decade — not even BCYL’s co-founder John Torres. Ten years later, the organization has served more than 3,000 youths through their program.
“It was just meant to be a baseball league. Did I ever think it would be as big as it is today? Absolutely not,” he said.
Jayson Velez, 18, is just one of the countless players whose life have been changed by the league’s generosity and focus on education and teamwork. Not just a sports league, BCYL teaches its players that education comes first, and it does so by giving incentives for academic achievement.
Velez’s father coached a basketball team and he joined the program when he was 12 years old. Six years later, he was awarded a four-year scholarship to the University of Bridgeport as a part of BCYL’s scholarship program. He is now majoring in mass communications and is required to maintain a 3.0 GPA. The scholarship covers all tuition expenses, and his only financial responsibility is to pay for room and board.
While a freshman at Bullard Havens Technical High School in Bridgeport, Velez took his father’s position as the basketball coach, remained active with BCYL throughout high school, and is still involved as a college student.
The four-year scholarship fund is a joint collaboration with BCYL, the Diocese of Bridgeport, and involved parents, that states the diocese will match the financial contribution of BCYL. Parents are responsible for the remaining balance. Scholarships go toward the University of Bridgeport and Eastern Connecticut State University.
“A lot of the kids that are on my team have been a part of the incentive program. I encourage them to keep pushing. I always check up on them to make sure they are doing the right thing and getting good grades,” Velez said.
Velez represents the root of the BCYL – encouraging younger players to strive academically and instilling in them the same motivation he received from the organization when he was younger.
Earlier this month, the league celebrated its tenth annual opening day at Seaside Park in Bridgeport. BCYL has remained true to its mission, “Building Today’s Youth…Tomorrow’s Leaders,” by focusing on teamwork, both on and off the field.
In August 2003, John Torres and his brother Sam established BCYL in memory of their father, Martin Torres. Born and raised in Bridgeport, they share countless memories of their father coaching their baseball teams at Seaside Park.
Today, BCYL has become a platform that has provided thousands of children and teenagers, ages five to 18, not only an opportunity to engage in a variety of sports teams, including baseball, basketball, softball, cheerleading, and a soon-to-be drill team, but to learn the importance of working together and academic success.
With more than 200 volunteers on hand, teamwork is the motivational force of BCYL. Collaboration and cooperation is expected on all levels, whether it is with their coaches, team members, and most importantly, the parents. When participants become enrolled into the program, expectations are set for both the children and the parents. Parent involvement is a mandatory component and they are required to attend games, meetings, and college tours.
“When a kid does well the first thing they always do is look for their parent to cheer them on. They don’t look for us, they look for them,” Torres said.
That requirement has led to the program’s success, not just for the children, but for the parents as well.
“I love hearing the stories of how some parents have gotten their GED or further licensing or credentialing after being involved with BCYL. There is no better example than a parent who has shown their child they can do it,” he added.
After its third year, BCYL implemented incentive programs after Torres found out that only ten percent of participating students were receiving honors in school. An honor roll program was created to provide students with a trip to The Arena at Harboryard in Bridgeport or a trip to a sporting event in New York if they received top grades.
Torres’ strategy seems to be working. Today, that number has more than doubled with 26 percent of players receiving honors.
“Yes, there is still a gap, but it’s getting much, much better than what it was years ago,” he said.
Educational programs have been put in place to not only motivate the players to receive honors and scholarships, but also to provide them with the necessary skills to reach their goals. In 2010, the organization launched the Caribe Youth Saturday Academy, which offers SAT preparation for juniors in high school.
The ten week program, which lasts for four hours every Saturday, resulted in a 27 percent improvement from the pre-test on day one to the actual SAT in 2010 and a 15 percent improvement in 2011. Out of the 22 graduates from the 2010 program, 21 are currently enrolled in college.
For more information about this program or interest in becoming a sponsor, contact the BCYL hotline at 203-913-0073.