Flint’s Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village is working to restore youth sports in the city

FLINT, Michigan -- Flint’s sports history is well-known around the country, with professional and high-level college athletes regularly representing the city in virtually every sport. 

That success over the course of several generations was rooted in the fact that Flint once had youth sports programs that rivaled any community in the country. Over time, many of those programs have declined or disappeared. Flint’s Sylvester Broome Empowerment Village is among the organizations in the city leading a comeback.

“Our big mission is to restore Flint sports,” said Joe Byrd, an athletics director at SBEV. “The city at one time was a Mecca for sports. There’s a big (economic) gap between recreational sports and high-level travel sports, so with Flint being a community that’s struggling economically, a lot of kids just don’t have access to programs.”

Part of Byrd’s role within the athletic department is to oversee the youth baseball program. Participation in baseball has declined significantly in inner-city areas like Flint for a variety of reasons, including cost -- baseball equipment is expensive. There also aren’t always usable fields or playing spaces. The SBEV team is working on addressing both issues.

They held a spring baseball camp in late April, with about two dozen kids participating. The camp was focused on teaching fundamentals and, simply, trying to create passion for the game.

“We’ve gone decades without inner-city baseball programs that reach the mass majority of students,” Byrd said. “There are good baseball programs in Genesee County, but their impact doesn’t always reach the inner-city kids, especially the ones who are below the poverty level. What we’re doing is re-introducing the game. At our camp, I would say out of a couple dozen kids who came, probably 90 percent had never even put on a baseball glove or threw a ball.”

“We’re working together to collaborate to get inner-city games going again,” Byrd said. “The long-term plan is to continue to bring the game back, with every corner of the city represented in a league.”

SBEV staff and volunteers are also working on rehabbing some playing spaces in the city. They recently did cleanups at the Dewey Park and Flint Southwestern baseball fields.

“Our long-term goal is to find other areas in Flint that have green space or an old baseball field that needs some love -- we want to get in there and fix it up and see each area of the community have its own youth programs that all come together in a city-wide league in all sports,” Byrd said.

There are plans to do another baseball camp in the summer and also offer a summer league. SBEV is also offering other sports. They have a youth tackle football program with teams for third-fourth graders and fifth-sixth graders. They have a 7-on-7 football club participating in a league at Legacy Sports right now. There are also plans to have an outdoor blacktop basketball league this summer for elementary-high school students.

“We are starting at a ground floor level and building a baseball program, a football program, basketball, soccer, and offering things like gymnastics and skateboarding,” Byrd said. “Now, we’re working with partners to create city-wide leagues or clubs that will help give kids opportunities to play.”

SBEV is also fundraising and plans to break ground soon on a multimillion dollar sports complex that will allow programs to expand and be a centerpiece of revilitzation efforts on the northside.

“It’s (sports are) a perfect complement to what we’re already doing on the education side of things,” Byrd said. “We provide amazing afterschool education programs that have helped many families. Between the combination of athletics and education, we’re providing a beacon of hope for a lot of kids in the area.”

SBEV is also always looking for volunteer coaches, who can both teach a sport and also provide lessons about character and leadership to kids participating. A volunteer application for coaches is online.

“The big thing we need is coaches,” Byrd said. “If they’re passionate and want to make an impact with the kids, and want to teach kids the sport but also how to be leaders and grow up with characteristics and qualities you need to succeed in life. Sports is a vehicle for teaching life lessons and instilling qualities that help carry an individual all throughout their life.”

They’re also looking for players to sign up for various programs. SBEV is offering a summer camp for kids beginning in June, with registration available online. Information about all of their athletics programs is also available on the website.

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.