In Connecticut’s biggest city, Bridgeport, there is more poverty than in the surrounding affluent areas. One non-profit is out to make a difference, and to make sure their youth has the same opportunities as children in the surrounding areas. John Torres, founder and executive director of the Bridgeport Caribe Youth Leaders, talks with Hann and Cari about how his non-profit is changing the lives of their members. Bridgeport Caribe Youth Leaders, also known as BCYL, was established in August of 2003 by John and his brother Sam in memory of their late father Martin. Their goal was to provide the children of Bridgeport with a baseball league. Sam and John formed a board of directors, and the first baseball game with a Caribe league was played on May 1st, 2004.
Since the first game 17 years ago, BCYL has served over 7,000 youngsters and increased athletic participation to include softball, baseball, cheerleading, education, and community service. Their enrichment programs include tutoring, SAT preparation, college awareness, and personal integrity. Preparing our youth for their future is very important to us all. So let’s dive deeper into that. John, can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your education and professional background?
My name is John Torres. I am the executive director of the Bridgeport Caribe Youth Leaders. I am a college graduate, the first one in my family, and I am a Finance Major with a Minor in Communications.
Why did you decide to start this nonprofit group?
It was back in 2003. My father had passed away at an early age of sixty because of emphysema. One of the great impacts he had on my life, and also my brother, was that he coached us baseball, and those memories stayed with us. One thing that it taught us was the importance of teamwork, of respect and also learning. We took the things we learned from baseball and turned them into a tool for many opportunities as we grew into adulthood and went to school, as well as our careers. What we found was that there was no baseball being played in the park we used to play in. We started out with just thinking of having a baseball team, but soon thereafter, parents, and even the kids themselves, were coming to us and asking, “Is there other things that we can do to stay engaged and grow?”
We added basketball, we added various other components that translated into education components in the early process. We also added tutoring programs, SAT prep programs, and other mentorship and leadership programs. It’s been a journey in which our ultimate goal is to place our youngsters, and even our families, in an environment where they will have access and exposure so that they can believe in themselves, and they can develop those leadership qualities. We want them to come back and give back to the community.
With everything you are doing at BCYL, is working there your full time job?
I’m a finance manager full time, and this is actually full time too. I work nights and weekends here. Yeah, I guess you could say I work full time. Unfortunately, our budget is not where it needs to be to be able to pay me a full time wage so therefore, that’s why I hold two jobs.
How did you come up with a name of your organization?
We’re mainly a Puerto Rican organization. We’re primarily Latinos, and not that we just serve Latinos, but when we came together, we wanted to highlight the beautiful culture of the Caribbean Islands, whether it be Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, or others. So what we did is we named it Bridgeport Caribe Youth League, originally because it was going to be a baseball league. But several years later, I think it was like eight years into our organization, we held a little forum in which we invited our parents, our kids, and our board members, and really looked at the opportunities. The name of the organization really reflects who we are today. And they were the ones that said, “You know what, we’re about building leaders, why don’t we change league into leaders to better reflect who we are?” That’s how we chose the name.
Can anyone be a member, and are there any requirements such as age restrictions or where you live?
We pretty much serve the greater Bridgeport area. Bridgeport is the largest populated city in Connecticut. Close to 90% of our participants come from Bridgeport. The other 10% are from surrounding towns. We are open to all. We’re a youth development organization, and we really focus on kids who are ages five to eighteen. Although now we’re incorporating some additional programming to serve the young adults, such as Caribe Summer Success, which is a post high school and college preparation program that gives the participants an opportunity to learn a pathway, whether it be college, whether it be vocational training, or for immediate job employment. We continue to evolve. Close to 70% of our youngsters are of Latino background. African American is our next largest demographic at 23%, but we’re open to everybody.
How did this evolve from a baseball game into a multi-sport and educational center?
I take great pride in the fact that this has been a culmination of community, of parents, of youth, and board of directors. We were all working, communicating, and really identifying where the gaps were for our youth. I’ll talk to that in particular, six out of every ten kids that we serve come from a single family household. Close to 50% are living at poverty or below poverty level. If you think about the County, we’re in Fairfield County in Connecticut, it’s one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. However, in Bridgeport, there’s a huge gap compared to the medium of the County. For us, we didn’t want to make that an excuse as to why our kids could not have the same opportunity as any kid and any affluent area of the United States, or even this world. Our goal was to level the playing field by providing them with access and exposure.
In doing this, we raised the mindset. We talked with the parents and our kids, and we got them to buy into what we’re trying to do, which is ultimately have them achieve their dreams and goals. That’s how we have evolved. It’s not because of just one person. I’ll give you an example: We are going to be embarking on a coding gaming program. Our kids have been asking for a gaming program for about four years now, and we haven’t been able to find the right curriculum, the right funding to make this work well. God is great for us, because this year we have found the opportunity now to roll out with coding and a gaming program in partnership with the Bridgeport STEM Learning Ecosystem where we have partnered with other providers and youth providers. We are working as a collaboration to expose our youth to gaming.
Do your programs cost money to attend and participate?
We charge a very nominal fee, but everybody is supplemental. In addition to that, we provide financial assistance up to a hundred percent. So no one kid is ever denied participation. People have asked, “Why do you charge a fee?” Well, we work on a limited budget. I said earlier, we can’t afford a full time executive director pay, even though I’m working full time. The fact is that close to 80 cents of everything we bring in, in terms of revenue, goes directly into programming. In fact, when we first started out, we had a program that was free, and the engagement level was not there. So I’ll give you an example, our tutoring program, which runs for 10 weeks for 3.5 hours each Saturday, we only charge $40. That’s like $4 for each Saturday. Now, if we were a private entrepreneur, we’d be losing money, right? But thank God that we have funders that support these programs that offset the cost, so we can supplement the individuals.
One of the ways our tutoring program is unique is that we focus on two areas, math and reading comprehension. We do an hour of each, and then for the the remaining time, we do what’s called enrichment. The kids then work on projects with the tutors. Once the project is finished, they present it to their peers, and the parents come and sit in on these presentations. It’s unbelievable to see how these kids progressed in terms of confidence level, in terms of being comfortable speaking in front of others. By the time they’re sixth graders, we have what we call a graduation celebration, where we celebrate all our scholarship recipients. I graduated from high school and also from college. These kids that are in sixth grade, they speak to a group of about hundred attendees. It’s amazing. It’s also about impacting the individual as a whole, as well. Working on those soft skills that can help build relationships for them.
What are some of the needs that children face that your organization helps address and who is your targeted youth?
Our kids need access and exposure. You can’t blame somebody for something they don’t know. We have about 400 families. We did a survey about four years ago now, and we asked the question, “Have you attended college?” And if so, “Have you graduated?” We had less than 13% of our parents attend college, let alone graduate. Obviously, if a parent has not experienced the college process, which is very cumbersome, they don’t see that for their child. What we do, when we go on college tours, not only do we bring the juniors that are in high school, but we also bring the parents. The parents can identify what a college campus looks like, and can really realize that, “Hey, my kid can go to college.” We work through all the training that’s needed for the college process.
Why did you feel it was so important to include information on girls empowerment?
I will never forget this, we had a group of young ladies that came to us. There was a young girl, she was about 15 at the time, and she became pregnant. And some of the young ladies came to us and said, “Hey, John, can you believe that this happened?” And collectively these young ladies agreed that we should start a mentorship program. So we started the Girls Empowerment Program, and really it was exposing these young ladies to women who were successful. Women who grew up in Bridgeport, similar to them, similar backgrounds, and collectively, they shared their story with them.
The results have been amazing. These mentors, which we call the adult mentors have been fabulous, really setting an example for these young ladies. 90% of the girls that have participated in our girls or promise program have gone out to college, which is incredible. The girls became more confident in themselves. They understand the importance of soft respect, of setting the example. In the last three years, we’ve had parents call and say, “Hey, how about the boys? Can we do something for the boys?” Last year, we launched the Boys to Men program with the similar platform. That has been a success as well. The programs were not something that we thought that was needed out there, it was because our community asked for it. They said, “We need this. This will be helpful.”
What types of incentive trips do you provide for students who get all A’s and B’s, and they reach the honor roll status?
To help our students do well in school, we started also educating the parents about teacher conferences. We talked about the importance of those conferences and how to have those conversations. Another important thing is we made doing well in school cool for the kids. We would bring them out in the ball fields, gatherings, and whatnot, and really highlighted the kids that did well. I believe that positivity motivates positivity. We collect report cards, and anyone that gets all A’s and B’s, we take them on a trip. We have taken students to professional sporting events as far as from Boston, they’ve seen the Red Sox, to Baltimore, to see the Orioles. We’ve taken our students to a variety of events.
How big a role does sports play in a child’s development?
Our sports programs are open to all skill levels in terms of kids participating. You’ll get kids that are starting for the first time, and others that are been with us for a while. There’s some that are very skilled, that are very good at the sport. What we try to do is we try to combine it so that everyone doesn’t feel like an outsider, or there’s always a sense of belonging. What that does is it really builds camaraderie. It builds the values of teamwork. And more importantly, I’ve seen it where you get a kid that started off for the first time, very shy, they’re confidence levels grow. I’ve taught from my personal experience. I’ve always felt that when I was confident in something, I went about it differently. What has translated is that this value system, and this confidence level, has increased with individuals via sports. It’s also translating in school, translating in their home, and translating in all different parts of their lives. There’s a lot of life lessons that are learned through sports.
What are some of the challenges that you see kids face nowadays when trying to get accepted into college?
For the challenges, what I see is not fully understanding the process. We’re trying to de-mystify the process for both parents and the student, and helping them navigate. Ultimately, the choice is on the parent and the student to navigate the situation where they can fully understand. They also have to understand the financial impact of going at the college. Another thing we have come to realize is that not every student wants to, or is ready, to go to college. That’s where we talk about “two plus two,” going two years to the local community college, and then finishing the other two at a four year university. We talk about, if not college, then how about vocational training? We were in conversations with the local unions here, electrical unions, carpentry unions, and so on. We were trying to develop a program, similar to our SAT Prep Program, that will help these individuals who want to get into a vocation be able to take the admissions test to get into these programs.
How are your young adults paying for their college education? And does Bridgeport Caribe Youth Leaders offer any scholarships?
I had this vision of starting a scholarship program, but we had no money. We started talking to the high school, and I was able to get two individuals who were able to give us $10,000 each to start our scholarship fund. Then we partnered with the local Catholic high schools here in Bridgeport. We also partner with the University of Bridgeport and Eastern Connecticut State University. We started this college scholarship fund, and we created fundraisers to support the fund. Fast forward to today, we’ve had 98 Caribe students receive scholarships for a total sum of over a million dollars. Some of these have been one time scholarships. Others have been four years scholarships. What I love about this, is the fact that of all the college scholarship recipients, we’ve only had three that have not finished the four years of college. It’s really about opening up new opportunities. Positivity breeds success.
What community service projects do you participate in? If somebody wanted to volunteer or donate, how could they go about that?
We do a coat drive, food drive, toy drive. We’ve done neighborhood cleanups. We’ve gone on and helped assist families with Zoom. We’ve also built a playground in town. We understand that although our families might not be able to give financially, they are able to give back to the community in other ways. And we want to teach the kids that they can give of their time and help make a difference.
We need volunteers. If you would like to volunteer, you could visit our website, or you can call the office. We are always looking for volunteer, whether it be tutoring, whether it be a coach, or whether it be assisting in the office. We have close to 200 volunteers on our organization.
In addition to that, we definitely need funding. There’s no doubt about it. In fact, COVID has really impacted us financially since March. We had three major fundraisers that we had to cancel due to COVID, which represented 23% of our budget. If anyone is interested in donating, you can visit our Ways to Give page. You can either donate by doing a recurring donation with your credit card, or a one time donation. All donations are greatly appreciated. 80% of our revenue that we take in goes directly to programming. Our website is www.bcyl.org.
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