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By John Rice
The intractable violence plaguing Chicago streets has prompted public officials to identify and fund programs that reach troubled youth and quell gang warfare. Forest Parker John Martin is a pioneer in this field. He founded the Chicago Area Alternative Education League (CAAEL) in 1976. Since then, over 140,000 at-risk teens have passed through this program, learning important emotional skills by playing sports.
Today, teams from forty alternative schools compete against each other in flag football, basketball and softball, rather than fighting over turf. But, despite its long track record of success, CAAEL continues to scrape by with a skeleton crew and a shoestring budget. Martin would like to see CAAEL recognized for its many successes, so it will receive the funding it needs to continue its work with at-risk kids.
Martin was a PE teacher at Stone Park Education Center, when they first instituted an intramural program for behavior disorder students. The students thoroughly enjoyed their first semester of playing sports and requested the chance to compete against other alternative programs. Games were arranged with the Proviso behavior disorder programs (PROVE) and a four-team league was started. CAAEL now reaches 4,000 kids annually throughout an eight-county area. The beauty of the CAAEL program is that it provides activities for students during their normal school day. They don't have to travel to other facilities to play sports.
After incorporating in 1980, CAAEL began to attract media attention. A 1987 Sun-Times article described a ground-breaking basketball game between members of the Vice Lords and the Disciples. It praised the CAAEL program as a cost-effective way to help at risk kids. The State of Illinois took notice and gave the organization a $100,000 grant in 1999. Since then, public funding has dried up. CAAEL relies on membership fees and donations to meet its annual budget of $120,000. Though costs have increased, Martin hasn't raised fees since 1998.
He keeps administrative expenses to a minimum by running CAAEL out of the basement of his Forest Park home and drawing a modest salary. He is currently preparing for CAAEL's 35th Annual State Invitational basketball tournament. Gang members and players wearing ankle monitors take the floor to compete for first place. More importantly, they hope to win the coveted Sportsmanship Trophy, a more impressive prize than the championship.
Martin got the idea for a sportsmanship award when he was attending an IHSA girl's basketball tournament and overheard a colleague say, "Sportsmanship is for losers." Martin had already been preaching sportsmanship to youth baseball players in Forest Park. For CAAEL players, it's a religion.
"From September to summer, they have basketball games every Friday night," Martin said, "To stay eligible, they have to be on time for school, get good grades and have no disciplinary infractions. It's a huge motivator to modify behavior."
Sun-Times columnist Marlen Garcia wrote about CAAEL earlier this week. She spoke to a CAAEL success story: Utah resident Kris Hill, who played for the league while in an alternative program at Oak Park-River Forest High School during the 1980s. "It gave me a sense of worth," Hill told Garcia.
"Hill returned to his mainstream school (OPRFHS), attended community college and earned a scholarship to play basketball at DePaul, where he became a captain," Garcia wrote.
Meanwhile, Martin is not getting any younger, as he was reminded at the "Un-Retirement Party" commemorating his 65th birthday. The guests included many former CAAEL students, and letters from grateful alumni were read. Martin is CAAEL's only full-time employee. He sees the need for a marketing person, a webmaster and a grant writer. He also will need a successor someday, to ensure CAAEL's survival.
His daughter Sarah Lorenzi is a great admirer of her father and his work. "My dad always instilled sportsmanship in his players," the former Forest Park softballer said, "He was always positive and encouraging us to be good sports. I focus on being a good person, because of my dad's teaching. I want to be a "possibletarian" – that's a word that captures my dad's message."
Lorenzi is understandably upset that newer organizations, patterned after CAAEL, are currently grabbing the headlines and government funding. "He's been working for over thirty years with kids others might avoid or not care about," Lorenzi said, "CAAEL doesn't have a statistician to measure its impact but you can read testimonies on the website."
Lorenzi described the upcoming tournament as a "safe haven" for students. With over 400 participants, it's the largest basketball tournament in the State of Illinois. This year's event will be held March 23-24 at the Forest View Education Center in Arlington Heights. "These kids are better behaved than kids in regular high school sporting events," Martin maintains. Those who would like to volunteer for CAAEL can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Those wishing to send a donation can mail checks to CAAEL at 611 Thomas, Forest Park, IL 60130, or call (708) 771-2042.