Aside from playing travel baseball and getting recruited by college coaches for free, the team ambassadors also get the opportunity to take part in networking opportunities with some of Atlanta's top business leaders and politicians.
C.J. Stewart credits baseball for everything he is today. Having grown up in inner-city Atlanta, the only thing that kept him out of trouble was his love and dedication for the sport. This is exactly why — as a successful batting coach who has developed some of the sport's top professional players — Stewart has now dedicated his life to steer young Black teens away from a troubled life towards a successful and fulfilled one life his. He and his wife, Kelli Stewart, have spent more than a decade handpicking and training young men from his former Atlanta neighborhood to make sure that they get a fair shot at life.
The selected boys play for their team which is part of an organization called Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct (L.E.A.D.) that uses baseball to help Black boys in low-income households break out of the cycle of poverty and incarceration. "[Baseball] was the goal. It was my reason for living. It was my reason to say no to drugs," Stewart told Good Morning America of his life. "It was the tip of the spear for me for everything." As a young man, he went on to play baseball for Georgia State University and then professionally for the Chicago Cubs organization.
Despite having an illustrious career, he decided to go back to the neighborhood where he grew up and help young Black men using the sport that saved him. It all began when a client asked him about the decreasing number of Black baseball players and what he was doing about it. "We really use baseball as a vehicle to help Black boys overcome crime, poverty, and racism," the 44-year-old said of the program. Every year, Stewart hosts tryouts for young men who attend Atlanta Public Schools. Those selected are called "ambassadors" and expected to uphold the highest standards in school and in life.
"Grades, attendance, behavior, and community service -- that's how our boys earn their opportunity," Kelli Stewart explained. "Pay-to-play opportunities are out of reach for them, but getting good grades, good behavior, and attendance in school and completing community service hours [are] well within their reach." Stewart compares the program to the Navy SEALs because, just as with the force, if expectations are not met, the players will be cut from the team. "Expectations [are] an empowering thing," Stewart said. "We're saying, 'We expect you to meet the standard. We believe you can do it. Here are the resources that you need. But if you don't, the accountability will be swift and clear.'"
Aside from playing travel baseball and getting recruited by college coaches for free, the team ambassadors also get the opportunity to take part in networking opportunities with some of Atlanta's top business leaders and politicians. "We need to get away from philanthropy in this country and giving people what we want them to have," said Kelli Stewart. "We need to make sure we are providing people with the resources and the tools that they need in order to be great in order to break generational cycles of poverty."
"The most rewarding aspect of founding L.E.A.D. is giving our boys the knowledge that they have someone in their corner," she added. "Day to day, they're battling homelessness, battling stability... you can get to a point where you have no hope because you have no help. For the young men who are a part of L.E.A.D., they see people willing to help make a change in their lives." The Stewarts have seen incredible success with their program as, since its launch in 2007, 100 percent of the students have graduated from high school, 93 percent enroll in college, and 90 percent of them enroll with scholarships. Noting that sports has always been a "liberation tool in the Black community," Kelli revealed that she hopes that the successful alumni of the program will continue to pass down opportunities to future generations.