Baseball camp for at-risk youth lauded as grand-slam success in teaching life lessons

By Greg Hardestry

A crack of the bat, and the kid took off.

Another youngster playing second base fielded the ball cleanly and threw the batter out at first.

“Nice play!” yelled one of several adults watching the action last Wednesday at The Yard on Rosecrans Avenue in Fullerton.

Technically, July 22 marked the culmination of a three-day summer baseball camp to teach pre-teen kids how to catch, hit, throw and run the bases

But it was a monster home run on a whole different level — and not just because a former Angels playoff hero, Adam Kennedy, helped run the clinic.

Nine-year-old Ray Gallegos tosses the ball during a baseball camp for at-risk kids at "The Yard,Ó a group of baseball fields in Fullerton. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Nine-year-old Ray tosses the ball during a baseball camp for at-risk kids at “The Yard,” a group of baseball fields in Fullerton. Behind him is Corp. Steve Bailor.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

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Since 2007, the law enforcement-led program OC GRIP has been dedicated to keeping at-risk kids from joining gangs, staying in school — basically, making the right choices and staying out of trouble.

Targeting the vulnerable years of fourth through eighth grade, GRIP, for Gang Reduction Intervention Partnership, offers such incentives as trips to Angels games and tours of Ford’s regional headquarters for students to keep their attendance and grades up.

Regular truancy sweeps are a component of the GRIP program, which is run out of the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and includes partner agencies Orange County Probation, Community Service Programs Inc. and several police departments, including the Fullerton PD, the most recent to partner with GRIP.

In a county with an estimated 715 street gangs and 13,000 gang members, GRIP plays a crucial role in helping to steer kids down the right path, says Deputy District Attorney Tamika Williams.

Last week’s baseball camp was about teaching baseball skills to many kids — several of whom had never even tossed a ball.

Some have never been to the beach or Disneyland.

Fullerton Police Cpl. Billy Phu works with kids during an at-risk baseball camp in Fullerton. Next to him are Misael Flores, 9, Ricardo Vasquez, 11, Juan Ugalde, 10, and Jorge Galvan, 10. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Fullerton Police Cpl. Billy Phu works with kids during the baseball camp on July 22. Next to him are Misael, 9, Ricardo, 11, Juan, 10, and Jorge, 10.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Most live in rough neighborhoods with precious few things to do during the summer.

And these kids grow up being told not to mix with or like kids from “rival” cities.

The baseball camp was meant to change that.

Two gang detectives from Fullerton and Buena Park — Corp. Joel Craft and Officer Jon Shaddow, respectively, as well as Andy Parker, a deputy probation officer II at the Orange County Probation Department — hatched the idea of bringing together kids from the two cities for the first-ever GRIP-run baseball camp in the hopes of not only teaching them some skills, but also some life lessons.

“Most of these kids live in their own cultural boxes that they never venture out of,” said Officer Joseph Zuniga, a gang detective with the Fullerton PD.

The kids spent the first two days of the camp learning basic skills from 9 a.m. to noon at Kennedy’s AK Baseball, a baseball development facility in Anaheim. Then it was time to show their stuff during the 90-minute game, followed by a taco truck lunch courtesy of El Cabrito restaurant in Santa Ana.

Adam Kennedy, a former MLB player whoÕs career included the Angels and Dodgers, works with Jordan Willard, left, and Roberto Avalos, both 11, during a baseball camp in Fullerton. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Former Angels second baseman Adam Kennedy works with Jordan, left, and Roberto, both 11.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Around 40 kids from Woodcrest, Maple and Topaz elementary schools in Fullerton, and student from Gilbert and Whitaker elementary schools in Buena Park, played on two fields at The Yard.

“For a lot of these kids, this is the highlight of their summer,” said Parker, who works the gang violence suppression unit and participates in GRIP, which has spread to 53 elementary schools throughout the county.

“This is something they’ll never forget,” Parker said.

Indeed, the kids seemed to relish the chance to show off their baseball skills as well as make new friends.

Johnny Lucatero, a Mater Dei High School junior and baseball player, donated his time to coach the youngsters.

“This has given me great awareness of what’s going on (in some neighborhoods) and it’s been a great experience for me,” Lucatero said. “It’s made me grateful for all the things I have.”

Alejandro Avila, left, and Humberto Ferrusca, both 12, leap for the ball during a baseball camp for at-risk kids at "The YardÓ in Fullerton. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Alejandro, left, and Humberto, both 12, leap for the ball.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Chris Young, a coach at AK Baseball, said that of all the kids he works with, the participants in the GRIP baseball clinic seemed to be among the best listeners and most eager to learn.

“This is an opportunity they’re not given every day,” Young said. “Without a doubt, the best thing for me is being with these kids and watching them smile and see their eyes light up.”

Adam Kennedy watched a kid field a hot grounder at third and throw out the batter.

“Great job!” Kennedy said. “Good inning!”

The former Angel, best known for hitting three home runs in a critical playoff game during the Angels’ 2002 World Series championship season, said donating his time for the clinic is all part of his desire to give back to the community. Businesses share Kennedy’s philosophy: O.C. Sports Exchange in Orange donated the equipment essential to the camp.

Elijah, 12, said if he weren’t at the baseball clinic he’d be vegetating at his home in Buena Park, playing video games and “watching the trees” outside.

Fullerton PD officer xxxx keeps an eye on Justin Rodriguez, 12, as he gets his turn at bat during a baseball camp for at-risk kids at "The YardÓ in Fullerton. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Fullerton PD Corp. Joel Kraft keeps an eye on Justin, 12, as he gets his turn at bat. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“I really like this,” said Elijah. “It gives me something to do during the day besides rot my brain.”

Elijah, who is entering the seventh grade at Whitaker Elementary, said he’s made new friends — including some from Fullerton.

Orange County D.A. Investigator Rick Crosbie, who helped coordinate the camp, recalled driving three kids from baseball camp to Topaz Elementary in Fullerton to be picked up and taken home.

Crosbie asked the kids how they liked the camp, and they all said they loved it.

One of them, a sixth-grader, told Crosbie he never thought he’d like someone from Buena Park.

He told the D.A. investigator that a Buena Park resident committed an act of violence against one of his family members.

The boy said he learned that people from Buena Park are “the enemy” and rivals to the gangs in his Fullerton neighborhood.

No longer, the boy told Crosbie.

“He’s cool,” the boy said of his new friend from Buena Park.

The boy told Crosbie that not all people are bad, and that a person can make friends with someone from anywhere.

“This made the camp for me,” Crosbie said. “We didn’t have to sell this to the kids. They figured it out themselves.”

Julian Ramirez, 12, gets his turn at bat during a baseball camp for at-risk kids at "The YardÓ in Fullerton. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Julian, 12, gets his turn at bat during a baseball camp for at-risk kids at “The Yard” in Fullerton.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Shadow of the Buena Park PD works with at-risk kids during a baseball camp in Fullerton. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Officer Jon Shaddow of the Buena Park PD works with kids during a baseball camp in Fullerton.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Misael Flores, 9, left, and Ricardo Vasquez,11, run through drills with Fullerton Police Cpl. Billy Phu behind them during an at-risk baseball camp in Fullerton. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Misael, 9, left, and Ricardo,11, run through drills with Fullerton Police Corp. Billy Phu behind them during the baseball camp.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Elijah Ornelas, 12, participates on a baseball camp for at-risk kids at "The YardÓ in Fullerton. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Elijah, 12, keeps his eye on the ball as he runs to catch it.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Jordan Willard, 11, tosses a baseball during drills with former MLB player Adam Kennedy, left, during a baseball camp in Fullerton. Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

Jordan, 11, tosses a baseball during drills with former MLB player Adam Kennedy, left
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC