The Chicago Area Alternative Education League (CAAEL) lost its founder, John Martin, in May. Now, Martin’s daughters, Sarah Lorenzi and Katie Martin, are carrying on his work with at-risk students from alternative high schools.  They held their annual softball tournament July 19 at the Park. Over 100 teenage boys and girls turned the proceedings into a lovefest of high-fives and handing out sportsmanship ribbons.  Each game ended with the players gathered in a compliment circle. As with all CAAEL sporting events, it’s how you play the game. 

“It’s not about winning or losing,” Elijah McNair, a 16-year-old high schooler in Lombard, said. “It’s about having fun. The program is all about sportsmanship. CAAEL has helped me as a person in a very good way.” 

“I’m a different person because of CAAEL,” said Jason Hajdas, echoing his teammate. “I used to get angry if I did badly. I don’t worry about that now.”

Hajdas had some pleasant dealings with Martin over the years.

“I was sorry to hear John Martin passed away,” Hajdas said. “He was a good guy. He loved telling people how good they were. He loved giving out awards. He was an amazing person.”

Jonathan Hamerman attends school in Romeoville and has been in CAAEL for four years. 

“It gives me a great opportunity to play sports,” Hamerman said, recalling Martin giving him a sportsmanship trophy after a basketball game. “It has built my character and sportsmanship. Win, or lose, I still feel good about it. I really appreciated him. I’m happy that he started this program.” 

Ariana Ramp goes to school with Hamerman and has been in CAAEL for three years. 

“I’m a very sportsy person,” Ramp said I’m not a shopping mall girl. Before I joined CAAEL, I was very angry with myself and other people. I was very intense and competitive. I was there to win!”

Martin first encountered students like Ramp at Scalabrinian Education Center, in Stone Park, when he was teaching there in 1976. These students had been removed from their public schools for a variety of behavioral and emotional issues, such as truancy, depression, drugs and violence. Martin organized a basketball team but they had no opponents. Then, a student asked, “Aren’t there any other kids like us at other schools who we could play?” 

His innocent question led to the birth of CAAEL.

It started out with four schools competing in basketball and grew to 26 schools by 1998. In 2006, CAAEL had 40 schools participating in the program and it continues to grow in popularity. 

“We now have 55 schools in 30 Illinois counties,” said Lorenzi, who took over as CAAEL President, following her dad’s death. “We have schools from Woodstock to Joliet.” 

CAAEL currently has 5,000 students in the program. Lorenzi estimated that CAAEL has helped 100,000 students over the past 40 years.

The reason for its success was Martin’s simple business plan. 

“It grew organically,” Lorenzi said.  “My dad didn’t solicit schools.” 

CAAEL also kept overhead low by using existing school sports facilities and transportation. “Now, CAAEL is a selling point for these schools,” Lorenzi said.  

CAAEL somehow serves all of these students on a shoestring budget of $160,000.

It helped their bottom line, when the Park District donated the use of its fields for the softball tournament.  The Park District later donated proceeds from the tip jars at the No Gloves tournament to CAAEL. 

The Park is catching the CAAEL spirit, as well as the volunteers who helped with the softball tournament. Richard Biggins was flipping burgers for the kids and credited John Martin for inspiring him to start Empowering Gardens, a Forest Park non-profit that serves adults with disabilities. Martin’s advice was simple and effective, “Just do it.” 

Martin grew up on the west side of Chicago and attended St. Philip’s High School. He went on to Loyola University and earned his Master’s Degree in English at Northeastern Illinois University. He worked as a high school teacher and principal, before launching CAAEL. 

“He was motivated to start it, because he was teaching disruptive kids,” Lorenzi said. “It started with intramural basketball at OPRF. It was a motivator for the kids to get involved in healthy activities.”

 Some of the CAAEL students are wards of the state, others suffer from disabilities. “They come from diverse backgrounds,” Lorenzi said. “And they become role models in their schools.” 

Lorenzi was teaching at Longfellow School in Oak Park, when she felt the call to help her father at CAAEL. He was single-handedly running the operation out of his Forest Park home. Though she is still recovering from his loss, she’s determined to carry on his legacy. Her younger sister, Katie, is equally dedicated, coming on board as an administrator. 

“We also hired a part-time programmer, Marty Knuth,” Lorenzi said, “Because it’s just too much for one person.”

This will free up Lorenzi to be the CAAEL spokesperson. Lorenzi applies for grants to keep CAAEL’s cost-effective program running. The organization also holds fundraisers, like its annual Band-a-Thon in Forest Park.

She encourages people to visit the CAAEL website and Facebook page. 

“I think the biggest thing is mentioning CAAEL to a friend, or family member.” Lorenzi said. “It’s been great and really helps us, since we don’t have a marketing person on staff — yet.”

Lastly, Lorenzi presented a hand-written essay by a CAAEL student. “It’s not about how many games you win. It’s not about how many points you score. It’s about having fun in the right way, meeting new people and helping your team win the Sportsmanship Trophy!”

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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