In the late 1970s, Crotona, in the South Bronx, was burning.
Homes and buildings were reduced to rubble. While many fled the
devastation, some people stayed, insisting they wanted to
rebuild their community. Mary Mitchell opened her home for
families in need and encouraged youngsters to play sport in the
streets as a means to distract them from the destruction around.
She opened one of New York City's first Play Streets and had a
vision to create a community centre for youth and family
activities. She died in 1983 but her dream lived on and in 1997
the Mary Mitchell Centre opened.
Crotona is one of the most racially diverse districts in the
South Bronx, comprising African-Americans, Dominicans, West
Africans, Puerto Ricans, Hondurans and Mexicans. Over 90% of
school children receive free lunches, only 27% of students can
read at grade level and just 26% can demonstrate proficiency in
maths. In a district with over 20,000 young people, the Mary
Mitchell Centre represents the community's collective efforts to
confront these problems.
Mary Mitchell shared with the Laureus Sport for Good
Foundation the philosophy that sport has the power to involve
individuals and transform communities. For 30 years, the Centre,
which is her legacy, has fought to have vacant lots turned into
ball-fields and to see local parks restored for soccer, tennis
and American football. One of its most successful initiatives is
the Fight Back jiu-jitsu programme, which began four years ago
and which receives direct support from Laureus. The programme is
made up of two complementary parts which directly benefit
different sections of Crotona society.
Self Defence for Women: These women are at great risk of
abuse. They are generally African-American and Hispanic, either
unemployed or in low-pay situations. They are all poor and need
the confidence and skills that self defence classes teach.
Bilalian-Ryu After Dark: Young adults and teens are trained
not only to compete in the art of jiu-jitsu but also as
instructors who can act as role models for younger jiu-jitsu
students, helping to pass on their skills to others.
With very little funding the jiu-jitsu programme has impacted
on the lives of over 150 youngsters and 30 adults. With the
support of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, the programme
will become a permanent component of the Centre and will be able
to expand to help even more people. The longer term target for
Fight Back is to reach out to high school students at risk of
dropping out, to teens involved in gangs and violence and to the
mobile classes within the shelter system. These are lofty goals
but the experience so far encourages hope that sport can make a
real impact on the lives of young people in Crotona.
The verdict of those who have experienced the Fight Back
programme is unanimous. One student Vonnelle says "the
class gives you courage and confidence that you can do something
good and at the same time be good at it." Brian, an
eight-year-old who attends class with his older sister, won
awards in three divisions in his first competitions and says
"I always feel like just a little brother, but now I feel
like one of the big guys." And Andrea says "if it
wasn't for jui-jitsu and Fight Back I would be in the street
getting into trouble and not going to school."