By Samantha House
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – To Yanira Johnson, Syracuse’s Near West Side has always been one big, extended family.
She said it is a family that lovingly gets involved in each other’s business – a family that wants to give its youngest members a safe place to live. That’s what Johnson, a 17 year old who graduated from Nottingham High School in June, experienced growing up.
“The Near West Side is a family,” she said. “It takes a community to raise a kid, and that’s what we’re doing.”
But in the wake of a Father’s Day shooting near Skiddy Park that left one man dead, Johnson said the perception of the community changed. And as people living outside the community judged the Near West Side as purely dangerous, Johnson said she feared the summer programs neighborhood children so desperately needed would be canceled.
So when she heard Syracuse University’s Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion was organizing activities at Skiddy Park, Johnson said she was excited to get involved.
Since July 6, the Lerner Center has partnered with a host of organizations to organize positive activities for children at Skiddy Park. The activities — which have taken place seven days a week — include arts, crafts and the Syracuse Housing Authority Softball League.
The league, made up of children between 7 to 10 years old, played its last game Saturday morning. And during the game, the participants reflected on a month’s worth of happy memories at Skiddy Park.
Rebecca Bostwick, the Lerner Center’s program director, said the center has been working on ways to improve community health in the area for about four years. Program workers talked to Near West Side residents last year and asked what barriers were preventing the community from being healthy.
“The major thing we heard was that safety was a barrier,” Bostwick said.
With that concern in mind, Bostwick said the center and the Near Westside Initiative teamed up with multiple organizations — including the Syracuse Housing Authority and Nojaim Brothers Supermarket — to keep Skiddy Park abuzz with positive activities.
But as the team was planning the softball league and summer activities, chaos struck the Skiddy Park area.
A Father’s Day celebration turned chaotic just after 11 p.m. on June 19 after men exchanged gunfire in a gang-related incident, Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick said. After running toward the gunfire, Syracuse Police Officer Kelsey Francemone shot and killed Gary Porter when she thought he was turning around to shoot at her, he said.
The shooting did not deter the team from working to make Skiddy Park a positive place, Bostwick said.
“It did not give us pause,” she said. “Now more than ever, we need to let people know that this is a park people should be playing in.”
Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, who threw the game’s first pitch, agreed.
“It’s exactly what Skiddy Park is designed for,” she said.
Standing at the edge of Skiddy Park’s baseball diamond Saturday morning, Johnson said the program was just what the community — particularly the community’s children — needed.
Johnson said she has watched the children become more social during the weeks they spent time braiding Boondoggle and learning how to play softball. She said the children have started to trust each other and open up about their emotions.
“What a lot of these kids look for here is hope and affection,” Johnson said. “When they get that love and comfort, they do better.”
After stretching and playing catch, the children playing on the red and blue teams had trouble containing their excitement. They showed off their pitching stances and bounced on sneaker-clad feet while waving to family members cheering from the sidelines.
Imere Kemp, 9, put on his glove with a flourish before the game — confidently talking about his team’s ability to win and his chances of hitting the ball to the edge of the park. He said he likes the Skiddy Park program so much that he wants to use social media to recruit more children to come and play.
“They should sign up for next year, because it’s fun and we get to do a lot,” Imere said.
Jaana Malone, 9, who joined Imere on the blue team, said she loves everything about softball – from pitching to stepping up to bat. She likes winning, but said she mostly enjoys how playing has helped them all “combine together and get along.”
“Even when we lose, we get support,” she said with a smile. “Even though we lose, we’re happy to be in the game.”
That happiness was palpable when the game started.
The innings passed by quickly, filled with the crack of bats hitting a bright-yellow softball and a steady chorus of cheers from fans.
After hitting the ball and making it to first base, a boy on the red team successfully stole second and third base. His run ended while he was trying to score a home run.
But the boy wasn’t upset about being out. He grinned as he took off his helmet — pumping one fist in celebration.