Gary Metro Little League recovers, thanks to donations
By Brian Hedger Post-Tribune correspondent December 24, 2012 1:58PM
With thank you notes and team pictures, Edward E. French, Sr. (second from right) gathers for a picture with (from left) Jessycka French, 14; Damon Barefield, 13; Christopher French, 12; and Edward E. French, Jr., 13, at the Gary Metro Little League field in Gary, Ind. Wednesday December 19, 2012. The group, along with several others, are writing thank you notes to people who have donated after the field's concession stand was broken into. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 26, 2013 6:19AM
Ed French remembers the phone call well.
It was the Monday after the Gary Metro Little League president had driven his travel team of young ballplayers home from a tournament in Milwaukee this past summer. He was just getting off work at his job as an Indiana Harbor railroad worker and the phone wouldn’t stop ringing.
It was Lori Peterson Latham calling, the superintendent of the Gary Parks Department.
“Mr. French,” she began. “You need to get here as quickly as possible to the baseball field. There’s been a break-in. We’ll wait until you get here.”
Moments later, French was driving to the baseball field at 21st Avenue and Harrison Street in Gary, shaking his head in disbelief.
“When I got there, the door was wide open where they had cut the lock and pried it open with pipes,” French said. “There were all kinds of chips and other stuff on the floor. They left the popcorn maker, the deep fryer and the refrigerator, but only because they couldn’t take it. They took everything in the refrigerator out, all the juices and candy. We also had a little cash in the register, which was about $100 to $125. They took that, the whole safe and the cash in it.”
The robbery combined with the Milwaukee trip had left the league broke, and soon French shared the news with his baseball and softball players.
“The kids were heartbroken,” he said. “They were very sad. We couldn’t buy them anything from the concessions stand anymore. All we had left was popcorn and we just gave everybody who came out to the field a bag of popcorn and some water. That’s all we could do until we got back on our feet.”
That is not where this story ends, however. It was just the beginning, because the league did get back on its feet within a week. As it turned out, compassion hit a big home run for the Gary Metro Little League.
This is a story that may initially cause you to ask, “What is wrong with people?” but it is also one that shows what is right about people. Those heartbroken kids and their league recovered quickly from the gutless crime thanks to plentiful donations in response to it.
Among the donations was a boost from the Homefield Advantage Foundation, a not-for-profit that has done quite a bit for the league the past few years. The HAF, which is funded by U.S. Steel and created as part of the naming rights deal for U.S. Steel Yard, had previously helped the league add a new scoreboard, pay a sizeable portion of the league’s $60-per-player fee to sign up and fix up the concessions stand.
After the robbery, the foundation stepped up once again — along with other donors who read about the situation in the newspaper. The league not only finished the season, but also held a nice banquet to celebrate.
“It was only a couple of days after the break-in that we started receiving donations,” said French, who’s sending out ‘thank you’ cards with a lot of help from his wife, Crystal, and 14-year old daughter, Jessyka. “They came from people who just cared about the kids.”
The donations came as boxes full of candy, juice bottles and other concessions items. They also came as monetary gifts mailed to the league. French used the funds to better secure the field and get school bags filled with supplies — which were then handed out at the season-ending banquet.
Among the kids with smiles on their faces were French’s own sons, 13-year old Edward and 12-year old Christopher — making what happened even more personal.
“I just want to thank everyone,” French said. “We got so many letters that we’re still in the process of mailing out these ‘Thank You’ cards. So, I just wanted to ... thank everyone who helped us, all at once.”
Among those who’ve already received their token of gratitude is state Sen. Ed Charbonneau (R-District 5), a former U.S. Steel employee and president of Homefield Advantage. Charbonneau grew up in Gary and said his heart still resides in the city where he also played Little League baseball.
“I played for Post 207,” Charbonneau said, proudly. “In fact, I still have my all-star shirt at home somewhere.”
Helping Gary’s kids experience baseball and softball is a passion for Charbonneau, who spearheads Homefield Advantage’s efforts in Gary.
Responding to the break-in, while frustrating, was just part of the deal to keep the league going.
“It’s extremely important that the young kids in Gary feel or have a reason to be optimistic about what’s going on,” Charbonneau said.
“They need to know that despite the negatives that do happen, there are individuals and corporations and foundations that are interested in making sure they are given the same opportunities that we all enjoyed growing up. It’s those opportunities that are going to affect people’s lives and let them go through life with a positive attitude and perception of themselves and their community.”
French’s way of saying thanks to Charbonneau and Homefield Advantage was a panoramic photo of the entire Gary Metro Little League.
“We presented it this past August and (Charbonneau) was overwhelmed and cheerful,” French said. “All of our kids were on the picture ... and we’ll be doing that every year now.”