Twenty years ago, while doing time in prison for assault with a firearm, LaVonte Stewart thought often about his time playing Little League baseball while growing up on Chicago’s rough South Side.
During his teen years, baseball was what had helped him to stay out of trouble, get good grades and win a college athletic scholarship.
“If I hadn’t fallen in with the wrong group and given in to the temptations of the dark side shortly after I started college, I obviously would have been miles ahead,” Stewart, now 41, tells PEOPLE. “But prison gave me a lot of time to think. I knew that baseball had helped change my life, and I wanted to pass along what I knew to help somebody else.”
After he was released in 2001, Stewart eventually became a Little League coach in Chicago’s South Shores neighborhood — the same neighborhood where he’d played ball as a youth. When the league folded, Stewart decided in 2008 to start Lost Boyz Inc., a nonprofit that not only teaches Chicago’s at-risk kids how to play baseball, but provides one-on-one mentoring with leaders in the community as well.
Stewart’s first team of 15 players has now grown to a program featuring six baseball teams serving about 130 kids, with a budget of about $150,000 donated by local businesses and volunteers. Girls also now have a Lost Girlz team, “because they could also use some mentoring and positivity, to make them less susceptible to dropping out of school and joining gangs,” says Stewart.
“Our ultimate goal is to help these kids get into college and develop themselves for professional careers,” he says, “and baseball helps them to stay focused on that. Some of these kids have issues at home: maybe they’re not getting along with their parents, maybe they’re missing meals because there isn’t enough money. When they first start with us, many of them seem emotionally, spiritually and physically lost. People have given up on them.”
Stewart, now a married father of three who works for Illinois State Senator Kwame Raoul (the successor to then-state senator Barack Obama) when he isn’t coaching, has expanded Lost Boyz to include summer internships, mentorship opportunities and service learning projects, outside of regular baseball practice.
“His passion for young people is genuine and highly contagious,” says David Robinson, a friend of Stewart’s who recruited him to help with a gang violence reduction program in 2007. “He knows everything about the kids and knows everyone in their families as well. We’re all better for being around him because of his enthusiasm for his work.”
“Getting my grandson involved with LostBoyz was the best decision I’ve ever made,” adds Fransene Rockman, who signed up Jihan, 11, with the league four years ago. “The coaches have been phenomenal in helping him learn to stand at the plate and hold the bat, and the student youth leaders are worth their weight in gold. Everyone is always encouraging, firm and supportive.”
Jalil Anderson, 18, is now a freshman baseball player at Chicago’s Olive Harvey Community College, thanks to lessons he learned on and off the field from Stewart and Lost Boyz.
“I really and truly believe that Lost Boyz is a family,” Anderson tells PEOPLE. “Coach LaVonte taught me that if you have the vision, (Lost Boyz) has a solution. He helped me through the whole process of getting into college and playing for a baseball team. Lost Boyz will forever be my second home because they are always there when I need them.”
While grateful for the praise, Stewart says he’s only “paying it forward,” since Little League coaches were willing to take a chance on him more than 30 years ago.
“Besides my parents, I didn’t have many role models growing up,” he tells PEOPLE, “until I started playing baseball. To me, the biggest social confluence of our time between social justice and sports has occurred within baseball. A baseball game is a place where you can sit next to a millionaire and for two hours, it doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white, rich or poor. You’re all baseball fans, cheering for the same team.”
“That’s a lesson I’d like all of my kids to take away,” he says. “We’re on the same team. We’re all cheering for them, in life and on the ball field.”