Turning March madness into gladness

Opinion: Columns

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

The Chicago Area Alternative Education League (CAAEL) marked a major milestone, holding its 40th Annual Basketball Tournament, March 17-18, at the Forest View Educational Center, in Arlington Heights. Over 300 students from alternative schools played ball in the facility's five gyms. This was not the IHSA tournament, with coaches and parents criticizing players and refs. This was a lovefest. 

Call it "March Gladness."

The only sadness was holding the tournament without CAAEL founder, John Martin, but it was dedicated to his memory. There were T-shirts and signs featuring his likeness. Though well-intentioned, Martin would have hated it. He was a humble man, who avoided the spotlight. 

Martin's daughter, Sarah Lorenzi, has succeeded him as president, and CAAEL is thriving like never before. 

The organization provides sports programs and activities for students attending alternative schools. The nonprofit now has 60 schools signed up. A brand new board is leading this effort. They hired a full-time program director and a part-time development director. CAAEL continues to attract new schools, while expanding its programming into non-sports activities, like Minecraft clubs, chess, and bowling leagues.

CAAEL is an alternative universe, where kids are rewarded for sportsmanship rather than the final score. The basketball games are loosely-officiated affairs. Players help their opponents up and congratulate them for their effort — the opposite of trash talk. Games end in a compliment circle, where sportsmanship ribbons are awarded. 

Many of the ribbon winners have overcome physical and emotional trauma to take the court. When he was 6, David Curiel was shot twice by armed robbers. At 6-2, he has recovered sufficiently from his injuries to play point guard. Benjamin Nieto was failing academically at Peace and Education Coalition Alternative High School in Chicago. But the CAAEL sports program motivated him to raise his grades and he is now on the Honor Roll.

Tim Wesner, a junior at Seal North H.S. described how CAAEL has helped him and his older brother Tyler. "I couldn't handle any male authority when I came to CAAEL," Wesner said. "I was a shy person, who didn't want to be on the court." The 17-year-old junior now plays basketball, flag football, softball, bowling and chess. "CAAEL gets me out of my own head. I focus on being a team member and a team leader. I get outside of myself and identify my interests."

Many students like Wesner have developed positive interests at CAAEL. It has turned their lives around. Their parents are grateful and many were amazed by the tranquil atmosphere at the tournament. No fights, just high fives. For the 30 teams that participated, the CAAEL tournament is the highlight of their year. Some of the Chicago teams rented hotel rooms. It was like a prom, without the dancing. Over 100 volunteers kept the games and award ceremonies running smoothly. 

The tournament motivates more schools to join CAAEL. 

"We've added new schools, including CPS schools," Lorenzi said. "CAAEL keeps growing organically." 

To keep up with this growth, the organizations needs more funding. They are looking for companies to sponsor programs and donate matching funds. Donations can be made through the CAAEL.org website. 

"I like CAAEL because open, honest people are congratulating you all the time," Wesner said. One of these congratulators was the late founder. 

"I knew John Martin. I thanked him for putting the organization together. I miss him walking through the halls greeting everyone. I wouldn't have grown as a young man without CAAEL."

Sarah also misses her dad but finds the best way to deal with the hurt is to keep his dream alive. 

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com

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