When Jane Wilkins thinks of the Northside Youth Organization (NYO) and its 70th anniversary, volunteerism and the children the nonprofit serves come to mind.
NYO is a sports program for kids 4 to 17 at Chastain Park in Buckhead that started in 1949 with only football. But over the years it added girls’ cheerleading, baseball, boys’ and girls’ basketball and girls’ softball.
“(The anniversary represents) all the achievements we’ve been able to make starting from scratch with 12 children in the program to (over) 5,000 now,” said Wilkins, who volunteered for five years at NYO before serving as its executive director from 1981 until her retirement in 2016. “It’s been a huge journey for the community as well as NYO when you think you have come from 12 little boys (in football) to 5,000 girls and boys and the various sports.
“It’s an exciting time for the community and NYO. We’ve been so blessed to have so many wonderful volunteers through the years. That’s what this is. It’s about volunteerism and the family we are. I’m proud to have been a part of that family.”
The organization will celebrate its anniversary with the NYO Turns Seventy Homecoming Celebration, for residents 21 and older, Oct. 6 from 5 to 9 p.m. Wilkins will serve as the “homecoming queen” at the event, which is co-chaired by Suzanne Caswell and Lisa Martinez.
It will include drinks, food provided by The Varsity, Pero's Pizza and Zesto, live music from the Dean Drive Five band and old memorabilia to “take people back through memory lane,” said Josh Burr, NYO’s current executive director.
“(Another) tent will have info on future planning for NYO and talk about the next 70,” he said, adding the event will also recognize past and current leaders, including Wilkins, league commissioners and former board members. All former players and volunteers who today are adults are also invited.
That includes two athletes who made it to the professional level in their respective sports: baseball catcher Kyle Farmer of the Cincinnati Reds and football defensive end Henry Anderson of the New York Jets. Burr said a handful of other former baseball players are in the minor leagues.
While the event is taking place in the fall to tie into NYO’s first football season, he said the organization will host other smaller events throughout the next year to commemorate the anniversary. Burr has been in his current role for just over a year, but he’s familiar with the organization because he spent about a dozen years as a coach and athletic director at the Galloway School across the street from the park.
“I think the biggest thing in getting to know the community is how much of NYO was built (by) all the volunteers and commitment and hours put into it,” he said of the anniversary. “It truly is a … labor (of love) for a lot of these people, whether it’s fields or fundraising or anything that’s been done out there. There are a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to make NYO what it is.
“There’s going to be a great opportunity (at the event) to thank them for what they’ve done, and to be able to show them the experience we’re able to provide for the athletes playing at NYO today.”
Allan Gottlieb, NYO’s board president, started volunteering there 27 years ago, when he started coaching his oldest son, Bennett, in baseball. Over the years he’s coached all five of his children – three boys and two girls – in different sports.
“It is a very exciting and humbling event,” Gottlieb said of the anniversary. “It’s been very rewarding having had the opportunity to coach all five of my children in the program, and a number of their friends and peers. Among the most rewarding aspects of it is a lot of the kids I coached 15 to 20 year ago are now coaching in the program. That’s rewarding and satisfying.”
He said NYO has remained successful by progressing with the times, especially in terms of offering more girls’ sports.
“The program has evolved considerably since when I first started,” Gottlieb said. “Back in those first years, when I was coaching, girls’ softball was slow-pitch softball, and I remember when they were transitioning from slow-pitch to fast-pitch. It was considered extremely revolutionary at the time to make a change like that. There have been other changes along the way.”
One change is NYO has, for the past few years, offered flag football for some age groups as a way for kids to play the sport without the fear of getting hurt while in full pads. Also, the organization has addressed the football concussion issue by working with coaches and players on teaching the proper fundamentals and by having concussion protocols in place if a player gets one.
Another change was NYO starting and later expanding the Christopher League, which gives children with mental and physical disabilities the opportunity to play baseball. Originally called the Challenger League when NYO was affiliated with Little League Baseball, it was later named after Christopher Rousseau, a boy who died after being involved in the program for about 10 years.
NYO recently named its fall season of the Christopher League the Mosies Dominguez Fall Ball League, after a boy who Gottlieb said was involved in the Christopher League from about age 5 to 21 before dying.
“I believe this current fall we’re at the highest participation ever, right at 50 children participating,” he said, adding the league pairs disabled children with non-disabled ones playing sports at NYO who serve as buddies to help them play.
“… Over the years, many kids have served as buddies up to the point where they left for college. It helped all those participants have not only a greater appreciation for things you take for granted but also made them better citizens.”
Gottlieb said he’s just one of nearly 1,000 volunteers mentoring about 5,300 athletes, and some of NYO’s leaders have volunteered for a generation or longer. Football Commissioner John Baker has volunteered with that sport for over 30 years, and baseball Commissioner Cliff Barshay has been there for 28 years.
“As we’ve added sports, we have a positive coaching alliance to ensure not only the girls and boys participating are taught sound fundamentals, but the coaches become good role models,” Gottlieb said.
For Burr, the coaches and other volunteers are strong mentors who mold children into strong adults.
“I would just say in terms of the anniversary, it gives NYO the opportunity to show we’re still focused on having a program that helps build great citizens and teaches life skills,” he said. “I think we live in a day and age where things are rapidly changing, and at NYO we feel there’s an opportunity to have a program where kids can learn life skills and be prepared for life after school and after sports.
“We’re excited to celebrate everything that’s gone on for 70 years and be dedicated to that mission and help raise better citizens.”
The park is located at 140 W. Wieuca Road in Atlanta, and the event will be held at Blackwell Field. Tickets are $40 per person and $70 per couple. A Double Date Discount ticket is $150 for two people and grants access to both the homecoming event and Rock Chastain, the Chastain Park Conservancy’s annual concert fundraiser Oct. 3. Sponsorships for the homecoming event are also available.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.nyosports.com.