Gene Rushing, a soft-spoken, 27-year veteran of the Phoenix Fire Department, is accustomed to emergencies and sudden changes in stride. But he was stumped the night he showed up to coach a Pop Warner football practice in mid-August.
The first practice had gone pretty well. Five teams of helmeted kids running drills had flattened the overgrown shag of summer grass on the field behind the Byron Barry Elementary School off 59th Avenue.
But the next night, the school gate was closed, the lights were off. "We walked out there and the custodian wouldn't unlock the gate," says Rushing. "All he said was they didn't want us on the field. Then he just walked off."
It is an all-too-common occurrence, says Vicki Gamby, commissioner of the Arizona Youth Football Federation (Pop Warner football). She and other officials of Phoenix-area youth-sports leagues say that too often obstacles stand in the way of children who most need the fields, the encouragement, and the relationships built on teamwork.
Pep-talking coaches like to say sports are a microcosm of life. Yet children's sports leagues, and other similar grassroots programs, may be even more telling.
They measure a community's resources in ways that other institutional programs don't. They reflect its ability to muster families, volunteers and businesses. They need easy access to parks and playing fields.
A New Times survey of sports leagues and other community-based programs shows that leagues in areas with high rates of juvenile crime are struggling to provide children with basic recreational opportunities outside of school.
And without the dedication of a core of volunteers, those opportunities might not exist at all.
In the Valley's underserved neighborhoods, leagues don't have access to the fields they need. They lack support from businesses. And in many areas -- rich and poor -- the only involvement too many parents or guardians are willing to have is to drop off and pick up their kids.
In some instances, parents can't or won't even do that. "When we started out in this 20 years ago," says Gamby, "all the moms and dads would show up two nights a week and on Saturday to sit and talk and watch the kids play.
"What's happened is it's become a baby-sitting service. They drop their kids off. They have nothing to do with it. Their kids are always looking for rides. So you're looking for volunteers? You can't even get them to show up for the kids' games."
A major problem for the south and west side teams is the lack of lighted fields.
In the Cartwright Elementary School District, centered on 59th Avenue and Thomas, the Byron Barry School is one of only six schools with lights. Eleven others in the district have none. And none of the schools have any gymnasiums that could be used for after-hours athletics. Only four of 11 school fields in the Isaac district around 41st Avenue and McDowell Road have lights. One site is substandard. And only six of 11 school fields in the Alhambra school district around 37th Avenue and Camelback are lighted.
The reasons for such deficiencies and the decline of some leagues run the gamut from poverty, and the failure or inability of many parents to give their children the time and attention they need, to the distintegration of families altogether.
In some instances, they also reflect a broader community and governmental failure to fund facilities necessary for basic recreational programs.
In the Isaac school district, for instance, "Neighbors resisted the installation of some lights," says Superintendent Jose Leyba. "And occasionally someone will complain about them. But for the most part, the majority of the community realizes it's a place to keep kids busy."
The city realized that, too. Between 1985 and 1992, it spent about $1.3 million to install lights at 84 schools. But many more schools need them.
The Maryvale area, where Rushing coaches, has one of the highest juvenile crime rates in the city. It's a community where children have had relatively little access to after-school programs, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs and sports leagues.
Earlier this year, Deborah Dillon, Phoenix's Education Program Director, discovered the lack of programs in Maryvale and other areas of the west side with computer-aided study that mapped available services for kids. The city council has since voted to spend an additional $2.4 million to boost programs, but community leaders say those added programs won't eliminate the area's larger troubles.
"In the Maryvale area, we have such a difficult time," says Cynthia Booker, president of Pop Warner's west association, where Rushing coaches. The association encompasses an extensive area from Glendale Avenue to Baseline, 43rd Avenue to 83rd Avenue.
"The parents are terrible. The businesses don't support the league. We have a very difficult time getting fields to play on. I've been doing this for four and a half years. And I'm so frustrated I'm ready to hang up my hat.
"These things should not be so hard to put together. But to make it easier, you have to have a community that's willing to help."
Sometimes, as Booker and Rushing found out, it's just a matter of bureaucratic screw-up.
It turns out that there was no reason for Rushing to be locked out of Byron Barry Elementary School that recent August evening. School officials had bumped the Pop Warner league off the field -- without telling Booker -- because they thought a city-sponsored team needed the facility. District officials say they usually give priority to city teams because the city installed and helps to maintain the field lights, and an intergovernmental agreement with Phoenix requires it. Parks officials say they aren't aware of any such priority. And no clause in the agreement mentions it.
"What aggravates me is the Little League has yet to show up on that field," says Booker.
Pop Warner wanted to begin using the field in August. The city Little League team didn't need it until September 9. So no one used it.
Over the past month, while the Barry field sat dark, Rushing's team and several others bounced from a park in Glendale to other schools in the Cartwright district, one of which doesn't permit the young footballers to use the rest rooms.
Dale Larsen, assistant director of the city parks department, says Booker is right to be frustrated.
"That's not the way this should work. The school should have brought everyone together and figured out how to accommodate the teams. To have someone bumped unilaterally just isn't good customer service, for any of us."
At 47, Gene Rushing is in his 16th year as a coach. His original reasons for getting involved, he says, have long since left the field.
"My kids were looking out the window across the street at a park one night, and they said, 'Hey, Dad, those kids playing football over there are our size.' They just kept pestering and pestering until I walked them over there and signed them up."
Since then, as poverty and juvenile crime and violence have claimed larger areas of Phoenix's west end, he has seen the number of west-side Pop Warner teams diminish.
Gamby and others say similar declines have occurred across south Phoenix, north of South Mountain and in other inner-city areas of the Valley.
By contrast, the booming, newly developed areas south of South Mountain and in the north and east Valley are adding new teams every year. But, like the older inner-city neighborhoods, these new areas don't have enough lighted fields. And in some areas, neighborhood organizations have rallied to defeat the installation of lights at school fields.
The pattern of decline is the same for Little League teams, says Bill Elder, who heads one of the Valley's four Little League districts. He and other longtime league officials say that in the past decade there has been a steady drain of dedicated volunteers from many central city neighborhoods.
"The Cartwright schools had a Little League up until this past year," he says. "But it might not charter next year. The last year or two, the president of that league tried single-handedly to do it all himself. But one person can't do it."
There hasn't been a formal Little League organization in the Murphy and Isaac school districts for several years. And recently, the Washington school district Little League was dispersed to two neighboring leagues because Washington's playing field was under construction.
But the decline of Little Leagues affiliated with the national program that holds its World Series every year in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, has left room for local leagues to take root.
Soccer leagues have sprouted in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, including the Murphy school district. The fields there are busy almost every night of the week.
On a steamy night in August, the Mitchell Baseball League is trying to fit its playoffs in between monsoon storms at Isaac and Mitchell schools. League president and founder Andrew Sandoval is leaning over the counter of the concession stand at Isaac field, dishing soda pop, candy and some history.
He says he started the league 15 years ago to get his kids started in baseball. Three other leagues were operating in Isaac, but over the years they disappeared. He says he started a new league because he looked around and saw kids who couldn't afford the fees in the other leagues, and to give kids something to do in the summer.
"The problem with the formal Little League is they run their season February to May, so, except for tournament teams -- the champions -- kids don't play during the summer. That's when these kids need to be involved in something."
Richard Dueñas, a parent, says he's been bringing his son to Sandoval's league for a number of years. "We came over here," he says, "because there wasn't anything else in the summer. That's the thing, there's just nothing out here."
Sandoval started with four teams. The $10 fee paid for a cap and shirt. Now the league runs 32 teams with more than 450 kids. The charge is $20 -- about the same as the registration fee for leagues run by the Phoenix Parks Department.
Sandoval says the success of the league stems partly from the fact that it runs more games than most other leagues, and it fills a significant void. Yet it's also a success because it's been able to attract a dedicated core of volunteers, including his family.
The common lore about some gangs is that they are a family tradition. Yet so are sports. Sandoval's two sons, Nick, 17, and Andrew Paul, 22, and two daughters, Kristien, 20, and Sarah, 18, are coaching teams in the league. Nick started coaching at 14.
And not far away on the west side, Gene Rushing's son, William Hodge, 27, is helping his father with his football team. And Hodge's son is just beginning his playing career.
Sandoval and Rushing say they probably would have burned out long ago if they had dwelled on the work and money they've poured into their programs. They've been lucky, they say, to have families and a core of volunteers involved all the way.
Other coaches and program leaders aren't so lucky.
"What happens to a lot of people is they just burn out," says Irene Zozaya, who by day is an assistant principal at Cartwright Elementary School and by night coaches Little League out at Starlight Park, farther west in the Valley.
Bill Elder says that "leagues used to be able to replace strong supporters and volunteers who retired or moved away. But we just haven't been able to get other people to come on board and continue with it."
"I think especially in Cartwright and in those areas south of Camelback, you've got a lot of children who need these kinds of activities," he adds. "There are a lot of single-parent families and even dual-parent families who are both working. Many of them are doing everything they can just to keep their heads above water. Maybe they don't have the time to give."
That syndrome is widespread. Officials from Valley Big Brothers/Big Sisters say that areas with the highest rates of juvenile crime are also areas with lengthy rosters of children waiting to be placed with mentors. This lack of volunteers and parental involvement is the blunt reality facing those who see volunteerism as the answer to the nation's social problems.
Zazoya doesn't think it's simply a matter of parents not having the time. Too many of the parents she encounters as a school official and a coach, she says, "basically work a job and that's it. You always have time for what you believe in. If you believe your children are worth loving, then you need to put in some time."
But she knows that many parents aren't equipped to do it. "I do a lot of home visits as an assistant principal. There are a lot of parents who do drugs. There are a lot who are in gangs. We're trying to preach our song, and unfortunately the children have to go home to that other song. It's very hard."
Many officials say those problems are compounded in many areas by poverty.
Little League fees range from $40 to $75 per child and higher. Mike Kayes, who heads Little League's District 3, which he characterizes as the gold coast, stretching from Four Peaks to South Mountain, says that he thinks the fees are too high for too many parents.
"All the doctors and lawyers can pull out their checkbooks and say, 'What do you need -- $100, $200, $500? We'll pay whatever you want. Just don't ask us to watch our kids play or work in a snack stand, or to umpire or to coach. We'll just drop the kids off and we'll pay what it takes.' That's nice, but what about the people who can't afford those fees?"
Little League has an unadvertised policy of not turning away children whose families can't afford the fees. "But who's got the absence of pride to take advantage of that?" says Kayes. "Are you going to come forward and say, 'I don't want my neighbor to know, but I'm out of work? . . . I don't have any money, but I want Johnny to play.' Or are you just going to ignore Johnny's request? I think it's the latter."
Rushing says he knows that some parents don't even bring their kids out for Pop Warner because they can't afford the $100 it costs for registration and equipment rental. Shoes, jocks and mouthpieces cost extra.
Participation in city leagues can cost considerably less -- $20 to $25 -- but participation is still affected by a shortage of volunteers.
Kayes and other sports league officials and coaches say that more kids could play if more businesses stepped up to the plate. Team sponsorships not only pay to put a business's name on the back of tee shirts, they enable leagues to offer scholarships for children whose families cannot afford the fees.
Without that sponsorship, leagues have to rely on registration fees to pay their annual insurance, equipment and lighting costs, which isn't simply a matter of electricity and bulbs. Area Little League organizations have been responsible for installing many of the lights at local schools.
Zozaya says the lack of business involvement hit home last year when Starlight Park's senior team of 16-year-olds went all the way to the nationals, in Utah. "They won the regional and the state. But we could not get support of any type to help them."
Gene Rushing says part of the problem is the changing relationship between businesses and their communities. "We used to have more local companies involved in supporting the teams. Now it seems like everybody's consolidating and the corporate offices are somewhere else. They're leaving these neighborhoods.
"So when you go to some business you've always gone to and ask for help, they say you've got to talk to the headquarters, in Denver or Salt Lake or in Texas. Why are the people in Texas going to want to support a little team up here on the west side of Phoenix?"
Donna Neill, a community activist, cites the recent closure of Tanner Volvo in her Westwood neighborhood as an example. "The corporate offices pulled their distributorship because Tanner wouldn't relocate up on Bell Road. But Mike Tanner didn't want to leave the neighborhood."
Ed Eisele, president of Holsum Bakery who heads the Garcia School Business Partnership, says that part of the problem is too many businesses don't take the time to see the need in their communities. "The standard knee-jerk reaction to some guy banging on the door is, 'No, I don't have it.' But I think that's mostly because they don't see the need in the raw. Once they do, the checkbooks open up."
These issues are a far cry from the hut-one, hut-two cadence of action around Rushing. He says the reason he keeps at it is he knows many of the children have no other outlet for this kind of activity.
"I know we're supposed to be learning football. But we also talk a lot," he says. "A lot of times, these kids come up to us about things that happened to them at school, or at home that they may not have the nerve to say to their parents. They sort of open up to us."
He says he used to have players who would tell him things that made him feel like a priest. "They'd just start talking. Some of them cried. After they talked about it, they'd say they feel a lot better. Some kids need that."
A moment later, a string of firecrackers snap at the edge of the school grounds. Everyone turns and peers in their direction.
In the past, says Rushing, there have been drive-bys. "That definitely keeps some parents away. Most of the time it'd be kids coming around the dark side of a building. Nobody's been hurt out here. But you can hear the bullets going overhead."
Rushing says there haven't been as many drive-bys in the area in recent years, but that doesn't mean the risks have diminished. Standing like a rock amid a stream of pee-wees running football drills around him, he says, "I figure they can belong to this group out here on the field, or a gang. It's just a matter of deciding which one you want them to belong to."
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