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Aurora Neighborhood Baseball League a hit

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Under Saturday’s balmy holiday weekend skies, more than 750 people turned out for Opening Day of the Aurora Neighborhood Baseball League, which was founded in 1994 as a way to give at-risk kids a chance to play America’s game at absolutely no cost.

A total of 357 kids are enrolled in this free sports program under Wayside Cross’ Urban Youth Ministry that not only provides new uniforms but also new equipment and team photos to players from ages 5 through 12.

That’s a whopping 117 players more than last year, which is outstanding news for Urban Youth Ministry Coordinator Robin Sterkel, who recalls what it was like to come back after the pandemic, which shut down the program in 2020 because there simply was not enough money to buy the equipment to keep kids safe from COVID-19.

This year, so many players enrolled, she said, the worry became a shortage of sponsors, as well as coaches.

But there’s something so special about this Urban Youth league – which emphasizes teamwork, agility, skills and faith – that Sterkel couldn’t help but have a whole lot of belief.

That’s because “God is going over and above what we need all the time,” she declared.

Indeed, at Urban Youth Ministry’s annual “Evening of Hope” at the end of April, a request went out for more team sponsors.

Four additional businesses were needed, said Sterkel, and just like that, “we got them.”

An email also went out for more coaches.

And on the night of the first coaches’ meeting earlier this month, Sterkel watched in amazement as new assistants and head coaches began walking through the door.

“Our room was filled,” she said. “We had them all.”

The program also received a much-needed lift when out of the blue Sterkel’s cousin, who lives in Utah, contributed new speakers to the baseball league because he too knew how special this ministry is.

“Half the time the old speaker system did not work.” she said, which made it difficult to run “large events like this” one on Saturday.

It seems the league’s events are indeed getting bigger as more businesses, churches and families see the positives of the program that offers T-ball for ages 5 and 6, “minor league” teams for those 7 to 9 and “major league” teams for children 10 to 12 years old.

A total of 18 teams took the field on Saturday, where the first pitch was thrown out by Fox Valley Park District Commissioner Joe Grisson.

Actually, because of the large number, Opening Day for the first time took place at two Fox Valley Park District sites: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park on Farnsworth Avenue and Copley II Park on Beach Street.

A total of 18 teams took the field on Saturday.for Aurora Neighborhood Baseball League's Opening Day. The event, larger than ever, took place on two Fox Valley Park District sites: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park on Farnsworth Avenue; and Copley II Park on Beach Street (MVP Photos)
A total of 18 teams took the field on Saturday.for Aurora Neighborhood Baseball League’s Opening Day. The event, larger than ever, took place at two Fox Valley Park District sites in Aurora: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park on Farnsworth Avenue and Copley II Park on Beach Street. (MVP Photos)

Another highlight of the event, noted Sterkel, was the Aurora Police Department’s participation. Because such a large crowd was expected, the APD is routinely called on for support. But not only did six patrol officers show up to help make sure things were orderly, “they stayed the entire day, interacting with the kids and with families,” she said.

“Our Aurora police have really stepped it up,” said Sterkel, referring to the department’s strong community connections that also included a dozen Community Oriented Policing officers who over two days in April played dodgeball with kids from Urban Youth Ministry’s after-school program.

Saturday’s baseball games, of course, meant an equal number of victories and losses. But everyone came away a winner, said the program director, who admitted to becoming emotional when players, coaches and spectators all filed onto the field for an Opening Day photo.

Members of the Rockies team smile for dugout photos during Saturday's Opening Day for Aurora Neighborhood Baseball League (MVP Photos)
Members of the Rockies team smile for dugout photos during Saturday’s Opening Day for the Aurora Neighborhood Baseball League. (MVP Photos)

“What I saw were people making a difference instead of complaining … people coming together and loving on each other so kids can have a positive experience.”

Sterkel was especially proud of a recent Marmion graduate whose parents “sacrificed so much” to give him a Catholic school education.

Sebastian had been playing on Aurora Neighborhood Baseball League teams for years, and this year was hired to be her summer assistant before heading off to Western Illinois University on scholarship.

“He’s come full circle,” she told me proudly. “That’s what we are all about … trying to build from within the community.”

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