Last in an occasional series
Eight-year-old Zahmiere Grimes and his best friend, Mehki Hopkins, sat in the auditorium of North Camden's Pyne Poynt Middle School building, taking in the rows of children around them. They were quiet until their baseball coach passed by. Then they called out, "Hi, Coach!" and giggled wildly.
Months after the end of the North Camden Little League's season, the boys still talk about baseball all the time, said Zahmiere's mother, Charlene Norman.
"All summer, all they wanted to do was go to practice," she said. "We didn't miss a practice. We didn't miss a game."
It was the first season her son played for the league. Norman, 28, of East Camden, said he'll be back.
"I loved it," she said. "The organization feels like family."
On Saturday, hundreds of children, coaches, parents, and friends celebrated the end of the league's fifth season with a "winter ball" awards ceremony, dinner, and party in a gymnasium draped in twinkling lights and fake snow.
With toy giveaways, trophies, and a red carpet, the banquet was the largest and glitziest of any previous league celebration. Felisha Reyes-Morton, who on Saturday became the new president of the organization, said that was the point.
"We want this kind of event to be something that people feel they can expect from here on," said Reyes-Morton, 26, who is married to league founder and prior president Bryan Morton. "Next year, we want people to expect even more."
The all-volunteer North Camden Little League began in 2011 with 100 kids playing on muddy baseball diamonds at the then-overgrown Pyne Poynt Park, which sits next to the middle school building. It has evolved into one of the city's most successful youth organizations, a 501(c)3 nonprofit with major sponsorships and close to 500 players.
The presence of kids and coaches at the formerly drug-infested park spurred county leaders to fund a $4 million upgrade of the fields last year. As a result, the league's newest players have not known a time when coaches had to chase addicts away from the sidelines.
And by 2017, the former Pyne Poynt Middle School building may be unrecognizable. Charter powerhouse Mastery Schools plans to transform the building into a new charter-public hybrid Renaissance school and North Camden's first high school.
The opening of Renaissance schools in the city has been controversial, and some residents have vehemently opposed creating new schools that siphon students from the city's traditional public schools. But North Camden residents have embraced them; this fall, a group of thousands, led by Morton, successfully petitioned the Camden district to create the high school.
Reyes-Morton, who works in human resources for the Camden County police force and is a school board member, said it was crucial that parents don't feel left behind by the changes coming to the neighborhood and the city. She hoped calling Saturday's event a "ball" would encourage people to dress up.
Plenty of players didn't; but for families who wanted to but didn't have any dress-up clothes, coaches solicited hand-me-downs from other league families.
"We have a strong network, so when we send up that SOS, people step up," Reyes-Morton said. "It gives everyone a chance to pitch in, and it fosters that feeling that we are one big community."
Morton, the 44-year-old Camden native who started the league after serving time in prison on robbery and drug charges, has shifted his focus to fund-raising and growing the organization. Last week, he announced a partnership between the North Camden Little League; Mastery; and Beat the Streets Philadelphia, a nonprofit that establishes youth wrestling programs in the region and provides everything from coaching to equipment. The program is to launch later this month.
League organizers also envision a citywide youth athletic association, an umbrella organization that would create new sports teams throughout Camden and could support existing teams such as the Cramer Hill Little League or the Centerville Simbas, the football league whose Pop Warner team played in the ESPN Mitey-Mite Bowl this weekend in Florida.
Norman, who works in food services for Aramark, signed up her son for the baseball league after he brought a flier home from school. Soon afterward, she learned that her fiancé's two sons would be coming from Florida to spend the summer with them in Camden.
The team her son played on, the Pirates, was full. But somehow the coaches found room for two more players so the boys all could play on the same team.
"It meant a lot," Norman said. "They were together all day, every day. It made us feel like the organization was really there for us."