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Not many of us know what it’s like to live in a town with no organized youth sports. No weekend soccer tournaments. No after-school field hockey or football practice. Nobody scores the winning goal, and nobody goes home coping with a painful loss. There are no trophies and no pizza parties.

For kids in Camden, that’s life. It’s been that way for decades. Parks and playgrounds that were filled with kids years ago morphed into dangerous hangouts for drug addicts and criminals. So parents kept their kids home. If you wanted to see a baseball game, you turned on the TV.

But then Bryan Morton stepped up to the plate.

Morton, 43, is a lifelong Camden resident. He lives with his wife and two young daughters in the house he grew up in. About three years ago, his wife took their then 3-year-old daughter to the nearby playground and came back saying there was no safe place to play. Drug dealers had made it impossible for them to stay at the park.

At the time, Morton was studying for his master’s degree at Rutgers-Camden. “I was taking a class on sustainable community development, and the other students were talking about all the faraway places they wanted to go and help the people there – they were naming all these war-torn countries. And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘We’re sitting in a war-torn area. I live in one.’”

Morton decided to make one small change to improve his neighborhood: bring back baseball. “I know if you have a ball, a bat and a glove, you can have fun. That’s all you need. We were going to start in one small field. We were going to make this one corner – just one corner – safe for kids to play.”

In that first year, 110 kids came out to play in what Morton called the North Camden Little League. This past year, 450 kids played on 28 teams with 62 volunteer coaches. Morton started the program by asking adults if they would give one hour a week to teach kids how to play baseball. He also solicited money from the city and the county, getting almost $4 million earmarked to rehab the fields. But before any work could actually begin in the parks, Morton had to negotiate with the drug addicts to get them to leave.

“Yeah, I know it’s crazy, but I had to go talk to them. I had to convince them to leave, and they did.”

Morton contacted other communities with established baseball leagues to see if they could help. “I figured there was a good chance someone in these leagues had spare cleats or gloves just laying around, and they wouldn’t mind passing them on to another generation.” The first to help was the Berlin Little League. They brought buckets of baseballs.

This past year, Morton added softball to the league. He expects 200 girls will play next season.

“So often, girls see their bodies portrayed as sexual and not empowering. We thought with softball, we can show them what their hips, legs and arms can really do. Mothers and fathers have been waiting for a reason to cheer on their daughters. They’ve been waiting for this.”

Last month, the Little League had its second annual sports banquet, where 500 kids got trophies. For some, it was the first trophy they had ever received.

“I’ve been on a mission to walk out my door and see normal. We needed to make parks safe for our kids to play, and we needed to give our kids activities that would keep them healthy and safe. We used baseball to do that.”

December 2014
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