By Peter Matsoukas
Recreation and sports is not simply about building the skills needed to succeed on the field; it is about team-building, responsibility, and the feeling of self-worth that comes from contributing to a community. The Bonnie Youth Club, an all-volunteer organization that services 300-400 student-athletes and their families, has had such an impact on and off the field that members continue to come back as volunteers to support the goals of the organization. Bonnies are family, regardless of background, and this creates a consistent flow of coaches, managers, and members who are dedicated to the community.
Al Bonnie, Sr. founded the Bonnie Boys Club in 1947. In 1949, in cooperation with the Parade Ground League in Flatbush, Brooklyn, the first Grasshopper League was formed, and in 1952, through Mr. Bonnie’s efforts, the first little league baseball teams were organized in Brooklyn. All boys from pre-teen to 19 were eligible, regardless of race, creed or religion. In addition to sports, Mr. Bonnie stressed the importance of education.
Almost 70 years later, the organization, now known as the Bonnie Youth Club, is even more dedicated to developing youth, most of whom are from minority and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. They use baseball as a means of communicating to those who might not otherwise be engaged. Vice President Peter Matsoukas believes that this is especially important given how difficult it often is to engage youth in positive activities and meaningful community-building. Despite this difficulty, the Bonnie Youth Club uses the city’s multi-culturalism and diversity as a model for how to approach cooperation in the community. HOW DOES IT DO THIS?
In addition to their baseball programming, The Bonnie Youth Club assists graduating high school seniors in applying to and securing academic and/or baseball scholarships to attend major colleges and universities. As an extension of the community built on the baseball field, Bonnies are encouraged to develop a sense of responsibility and self-worth through education. All student/athletes receive advice and guidance at both formal and informal meetings from educators within the Bonnie Youth Club family as an integral part of the higher education program. This is especially important as many New York City high schools, private and public, lack the staffing to properly handle the job of college counseling. The Bonnie Youth Club takes special pride in their ability to get student/athletes into college and follow up on their academic work to guarantee an expanding larger number of college graduates.
The Bonnie Youth Club has no paid staff members, relying on some 75 volunteers annually to support its activities and further its mission. Their long history and large volunteer and constituent base has created a strong sense of “family” in which Bonnie alumni act as mentors and role models reinforcing the values they learned during their Bonnie experience. A fine example of this family is Calvin Baker, an original Hall of Fame Bonnie, who is a current member of the Board of Directors along with three other former Bonnie players. Most of Bonnie’s managers and coaches, and the parents bringing their children into the organization, are former Bonnie players. Apparently, a Bonnie never forgets.
Each year, the Bonnie Youth Club honors the Bonnies who have contributed to the organization as players, members, managers, and more. Many of these Bonnies have shown engagement since the early days of the Bonnie Youth Club, a testament to the impact they have had on members and volunteers alike. For other nonprofit organizations, this is an important model for sustainability and success. Longevity definitely plays a role in the Bonnie Youth Club’s ability to have the most impact, but the effects that the programs themselves have had on former members have clearly created a self-sustaining cache of volunteers and constituents alike. The community built on the baseball field stays with each Bonnie and continues to build long after they have received an education and become productive members of society.
The value of an academic education, the ethics of productive work and individual discipline, an understanding of self-worth and responsibility, and a respect for teamwork and diversity are at the heart of The Bonnie Youth Club. Their volunteers are often their own – individuals who have benefited tremendously from the work that the Bonnies do and want to continue that work of building a community and instilling a sense of ambition and respect among youth.
Peter Matsoukas is the vice-president of the Bonnie Youth Club and has been with the organization for over 25 years as a coach, manager and member of the Board of Directors. Pete is a retired NYC public high school history teacher and coach of basketball, baseball and golf. He is the father of two grown children and lives in New York City.