By Charles Curtis III | AC JosepH Media Guest Blogger
CAMDEN — Falio Leyba-Martinez remembers spending his childhood as one filled with love from his parents, working for his family’s grocery store, school and baseball.
He was a young child when his family moved from North Jersey to Camden. In this new environment, the faces of the people were no longer familiar, the lingo was different, the street signs changed and yet one thing remained constant — baseball.
For Leyba-Martinez, baseball would allow him the opportunity to connect with peers in his new community while also amplifying his family’s creed of hard work and diligence. This relationship with baseball would lay the foundation for his life in the years to come.
It has been 13 years since East Camden’s last baseball season. Leyba-Martinez, a Camden resident still and now a father, decided that this had been too long and would work tirelessly to restart a league in the neighborhood.
He wanted not just his kids but other kids in the city to be able to experience the love of baseball in the same way that he had himself did as a child or as a young adult playing semi-pro in the Dominican Republic. And in 2019, it happened with just one team and 11 players, including his son — a resurgence of little league baseball in East Camden had been fully realized.
The East Camden Little League now two years later the league has grown to include over 100 players.
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This growth in the league has grown far past the diamond and into the hearts of an entire community. Players are taught valuable lessons about sportsmanship as well as responsibility. Players come together daily to clean and maintain the appearance of the fields utilized for practice and games.
This service is extended into the community as well as players are encouraged to participate in community services, instilling pride in the neighborhood through giving back. Leading by example Leyba-Martinez, himself would often participate in community services — one being the Camden Initiative.
The Camden Initiative bridges the gap between community members and the local police through connection to resources for youth and family. Hearing about his mission and passion for the league would incite a number of officers to step up to the plate as volunteer coaches for a number of teams.
“Growing up in Camden, as a brown kid I can understand the feelings some people may have towards the police,” Leyba-Martinez told Front Runner New Jersey.com. “However, I also recognize it’s not all police officers and that they are here to maintain law and order. I want the kids to be able to understand that as well.”
Leyba-Martinez recollects on the blossoming relationship between police officers and the community that has been cultivated by baseball.
“Parents are now able to trust the officers, it’s like if I trust my kid, I most certainly have to trust you,” he said.
Leyba-Martinez recounts how this new level of trustworthiness has led to an improvement in communication amongst the community and built lasting genuine relationships between coach/officers and players. In a city where poverty is high and riddled with violence, he hopes to break the cycle by utilizing baseball as a tool for character building.
“We take them to other towns to play and you can see that some of them get intimidated by the big cars and houses they see,’ he said. “Before they even get to the field they look defeated. But I remind them that the only thing that matters in this game is hard work. And they work hard.”
The East Camden Yankees would go on to win last year’s championship. Coach Falio, would not just reignite baseball in East Camden but lessons about persistence, confidence, teamwork and community.
“Our kids need to be part of an organization that pushes them,” Leyba-Martinez said. “We remind them that they are capable of anything.”
Leyba-Martinez transitioned from player to coach and has shown that he still has what it takes to score a home run, on or off the field.
BIO: Charles Curtis, III is a Camden native, small business owner, poet and writer. Recently, Charles has utilized media to engage with the community updating the city on local news as well as connecting them to art and entertainment events happening locally.
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