MOTT HAVEN — Harlem RBI, the East Harlem-based nonprofit that for two decades has helped low-income city children thrive through baseball, has expanded to the South Bronx.
The organization now runs an afterschool program for 130 children at P.S. 18, on Morris Avenue, teaching little league baseball and softball, as well as providing homework help and a range of activities. The South Bronx campus of Harlem RBI is recruiting for volunteers, as it plans to add to its activities there and beyond.
During a recent afternoon in Mott Haven, young children danced off in a crowded zumba class, while others worked on their karate skills or on arts and crafts. At the end of the day, excited teams gathered in the school’s auditorium for their weekly award ceremony, which rewards them for representing the group’s core values — teamwork, enthusiasm, integrity — and for their academic achievement.
“Together, you read 4,436 pages this week,” RBI’s campus coordinator Moises Cordero told the audience of children and volunteers, as he handed out “MVP” certificates to the week’s winners.
Harlem RBI started in 1991 with an abandoned lot in East Harlem turned into a baseball field for the neighborhood’s kids. In the past decade, the organization has grown into one of the city’s best known, serving 1,500 boys and girls from kindergarten to college, and running a charter school in addition to summer camps and afterschool programs. Last summer, RBI expanded from its Harlem base into Mott Haven.
“Whenever we have chosen to grow, the choice has been, do we go wider or do we go deeper into our own community? And we’ve always chosen to go deeper,” said Richard Berlin, executive director of Harlem RBI. “This time around we were interested in seeing if the success of this program was something specific to East Harlem or if it might have a more generic and powerful impact.”
Eventually, Harlem RBI hopes to replicate its programs beyond the city.
Program officials chose Mott Haven as a first attempt at expansion because of its proximity and similarities to East Harlem — most notably its severe poverty. A concrete lot behind P.S. 18, which happened to be shaped like a baseball diamond, sealed the choice.
“We thought, 'What about making that the South Bronx field of dreams, for our first ever expansion effort?'” said Berlin, adding that despite being “in the shadow” of Yankee Stadium, the neighborhood lacked a children’s baseball league.
In addition to the program’s signature baseball and softball, the group offers children help with homework and a wide range of extracurricular activities. So far, it serves kindergarteners through sixth-graders, but organizers hope to add a grade every year, eventually reaching 500 children and teens.
“We really hope that the young people we work with stay with us all the way through high school and college,” said Dane Martinez, director of South Bronx programs, who was raised in the borough. “They’re on this team, and we really believe in the power of teams to help them when times are tough, to give a support structure.”
Expanding to the Bronx presented new challenges to the group — including a larger population of recent immigrants and Spanish-speaking families. Martinez also noted that the children struggled academically more than their Harlem peers did.
Program organizers said they had no plans to start a charter school in the Bronx like they did in Harlem, and admitted that establishing a presence in a new community would take time.
“In East Harlem we had 20 years of goodwill and relationships built up,” said Martinez. “Here we are new; we have to demonstrate our value and prove to people that we are what we say we are.”
A different nonprofit operated an afterschool program at P.S. 18, but was forced to stop when it lost funding.
“We tried to be cautious and reflective of the fact that this was a new community for us and that a lot of people had been working hard to make life better here for a long time,” said Berlin. “But we felt like we could be a valued partner.”
The group has also reached out to the community to help run the program, which depends largely on volunteers, and has recently held information sessions for parents and local residents.
Alicia Rondon started volunteering in Harlem in January 2013, finally fulfilling a recurring new year’s resolution. But when the organization announced its Bronx move, the Crotona resident jumped at the opportunity.
“I wanted to be here, this is my neighborhood,” said Rondon, who volunteers on her day off from her job as a dental assistant.
Opportunities like this were scarce as she grew up in the area in “rougher years,” she said, but still much needed today.
“It’s not really the kind of neighborhood where you can go outside and play,” she said.
At the school, last week, there was plenty of playing and learning, and the children’s “joy,” Rondon said, kept her coming back. She has been telling friends about the program, but said that getting people to volunteer their time is not easy.
“Any help we can get we appreciate. If you have athletic abilities, if you have any talents, come on in and help us,” Cordero said. “We know positive influence works; it’s just a matter of reaching out.”