Resurrecting Hope: A Band of Local Athletes Would Like To Be the Change They Wish To See

The Men of Athletic Konnections II(Jason Gipson, right of center, with members of Athletic Konnections || Photo: The Village Free Press).

Monday, April 21, 2014 || By Michael Romain 

Saturday, MAYWOOD–Children from Maywood, Bellwood, Forest Park and other surrounding communities saturated Burton Park on 16th and Washington last Saturday as part of Athletic Konnection’s first ever Easter Egg Hunt. Men wearing the organization’s apparel were deliberately situated in different areas throughout the park. One facilitated a passing drill to a dozen or so young boys; another monitored the flow of small children through a festive bounce house erected on the southeast side of the park; a DJ was stationed at a table right in the center of the fun.

State Rep. Chris Welch with sonA DJ provides music

Children in Bounce HouseThe Easter Bunny

People lined upYoung boys wait to catch football(Top left to right: State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch with son Tyler, as he waits to enter bounce house; a DJ provided the music; the silhouettes of bouncing children; the Easter Bunny made an appearance; people waiting to enjoy the activities; young boys queue up for a passing drill || Photos: The Village Free Press).

This scene was the brainchild of a tight-knit generation of gifted two- and three-sport athletes who came of age playing sports for area park districts; district 88 and 89 elementary schools; and Proviso East and West high schools.

As a child, Jason Gipson, 29, was a quarterback for the Maywood BUCS (“Because U Can Succeed”) football program and a pitcher for the local little league. The Irving Elementary alumnus went on to become a standout athlete at Proviso East high school, where he was a three-time varsity letterman in baseball and a two-time All West Suburban Conference selection in football.

After high school, he and two of his closest friends, Byron Banks (a three-year varsity letterman in baseball at Proviso East) and Marques Hatch (a three-year varsity letterman in baseball at Proviso West), went off to Louisiana to make an impact on Grambling State University’s baseball program. They didn’t know at the time that Grambling State would leave an even bigger impact on them.

“We were majoring in sport management and we started thinking about what we could do to better our community,” Gipson said.

Their community, it turned out, was not quite as idyllic as they may have thought it to be while growing up.

“At Grambling, we realized that when we were growing up, we weren’t provided with the same opportunities that some of our peers in college had when they were growing up. Many of the resources that they had we wouldn’t have even been able to fathom,” said Gipson.

That epiphany sparked a burning desire to do something so that the generations of young athletes lined up to catch the football near the park’s western expanse wouldn’t have to suffer the same inequity.

Athletic Konnections is the result of that desire. In 2009, the organization developed a website, tapped into a younger crowd who could identify with the present state of the community and began taking on a more formal organizational identity. According to its website, Gipson serves as the organization’s Director and CEO; Byron Banks, its Director of Marketing; and Marques Hatch, its Assistant Director.

The organization also includes a number of other athletes who developed their gifts in Proviso Township and now serve as skills instructors–people like Adrian Schaffer II.

Schaffer, 29, was a captain on Garfield Elementary’s basketball team in the late 1990s before moving to Michigan, where he played basketball at Rochester Adams High School and Rochester College. After graduating, he moved back to Illinois, where he’s accumulated coaching experience at the Dewey School of Excellence and Edwin G. Foreman High School.

Athletic Konnections is really a reservoir of one generation’s collective wisdom and resources pouring into the present generation of young athletes in Maywood, Bellwood, Hillside and other western suburbs. The organization offers instruction in a range of sports, such as baseball, basketball, football and boxing–all of which are considered secondary to one of the organization’s main goals, which is to prepare young people for college. To that effect, it also offers tutoring in core subjects such as math, science, history and English; mentoring opportunities; and even a book club for young girls.

When asked whether or not Athletic Konnections had any formal relationship with any local government entities, Gipson stressed that the organization is open to any collaboration that puts young people first.

“We’re just a bunch of young guys ready for change,” he said.

“We’ll work with the Maywood  Park District, the Bucs, the Village–whatever organization has the kids as a priority. But we’re focused less on the organizations than the kids, because their success determines the success of Maywood.” VFP

For more information on Athletic Konnections or to sign your child up for its programming, visit the website here.

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