Atlanta native C.J. Stewart had a standout prep baseball career at Westlake High School and Georgia Perimeter College, leading to his selection by the Chicago Cubs in the 26th round of the Major League Baseball Draft in 1996.
At the conclusion of his professional career, after two seasons in the minors, Stewart saw a need to give back to his community.
“I was born and raised in the inner city of Atlanta, and my childhood dream, as early as age 8, was to play professional baseball for the Chicago Cubs,” he said. “My dream became a reality, but I didn’t have a blueprint that I could share with African-Americans boys that were being raised in the inner city of Atlanta. Conviction led me back home.”
Stewart, a Vinings resident, reflected back on his path toward professional baseball for inspiration.
“Conviction always precedes connection,” he said. “I was raised in poverty by a young mother and father. My parents were hard working but lacked the financial resources and the network to convert my dreams of playing baseball into a reality. Without the support of my community, my dreams would have never flourished. I know what it feels like to want and not have. I know what it feels like to be the only black kid on the baseball team. I know what it feels like to be on public assistance, for people to make negative assumptions about you because of the neighborhood you come from. I connect with them and know how to help them because I am them.”
After researching the issues further, Stewart founded the nonprofit LEAD (Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct) in 2007.
“As we peeled back the layers to this issue, we realized that right here in Atlanta, we had African-American boys who had about a 40% chance of graduating from high school and an 80% chance of being incarcerated. We decided that while the national rhetoric focused on the decline of Major League Baseball players in the black community, we would focus on developing more major league citizens in our community. I beat the odds and LEAD allows me to use my life as a curriculum to use baseball as a vehicle to help black males overcome crime, poverty and racism.”
LEAD has served more than 350 black males from grades six through 12 in its partnership with Atlanta Public Schools for the year-round Pathway2Empowerment program. Middle school student-athletes participate in the Middle School Character Development League.
“Our purpose is to provide black boys with a safe place to fail without it costing them their lives,” Stewart said. “We provide mentorship and sponsorship for our youth. Mentorship alone will not help our youth overcome the obstacles of crime, poverty and racism. We provide our youth with agency and advocacy. Helping them find and use their voices and letting them know that we are on their team as advocates gives them the confidence and strength they need to overcome.”
The middle school students in the program become LEAD ambassadors though high school matriculation.
“LEAD’s mission is to empower an at-risk generation to lead and transform their city of Atlanta,” Stewart said. “We believe that leadership is best learned by leading. We empower our ambassadors by giving them responsibility and authority to manage their own LEAD-sponsored baseball games and service opportunities. They attend social events in Atlanta on behalf of LEAD and network with business leaders, educators and politicians with confidence.”
To date, 100% of LEAD ambassador student-athletes have graduated from high school and enrolled into college, and 92% have received college baseball scholarship opportunities.
Stewart has also been on the front line of the path of local baseball players reaching the professional ranks and metro Atlatna becoming a premier baseball area through his company, Diamond Directors. He has worked as the private hitting coach for Atlanta athletes Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward, who play for the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, respectively, as well as New York Mets rookie and 2019 MLB All-Star Pete Alonzo, who won the Home Run Derby July 8. Stewart has seen the growth of baseball in his hometown.
“East Cobb Baseball was established in 1985 and the Braves went from worst to first during the 1991 season,” he said. “Around that time, Sports-A-Rama opened a 30,000 square foot baseball training facility near the East Cobb Baseball field. Those three things combined created a hotbed that still exists today. The success of youth baseball players making it to the majors gives strong cues that highly motivate youth and sends them the message that they can also make it.”
LEAD will host its annual Breaking Barriers Baseball Camp for children ages 5 through 10 at the Trinity School in Buckhead July 29 through Aug. 2.
“Atlanta has the highest wealth gap in the United States, and we are divided as a city between the haves and the have-nots,” Stewart said. “The camp is an intentional effort to connect youth that live in Bankhead and Buckhead and to provide jobs for our ambassadors. Historically, baseball has always brought people together in America. Recall the story of Jackie Robinson, and even how the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta, allowing us to prove that we were a city ‘Too Busy To Hate.’ Connection then leads to consensus, followed by collaboration, resulting in change. LEAD is committed to empowering youth of all races to lead the racial change our community and world need to see.”
For more information on the camp, visit http://bit.ly/2XEBTOe.