When Loreauville native Allison Fitchett spotted Darin Fontenette at the Hartley-Vey Sports Complex in 2008, 75 miles from their hometown and a few years post-graduation, he heard the former LHS Tigers cheerleader before he saw her.
“L-H-S! Go Tigers! It was our school cheer,” Fitchett said. Loreauville was the kind of place where everyone knew everyone else, though they’d lost touch over the years, and neither had any idea the other was in Baton Rouge, much less living in the same neighborhood off Gardere Lane.
As they caught up, Fontenette, the former football player, told Fitchett about a group of children he’d been informally meeting at the park every afternoon to throw around a football.
The more time he spent at it, he said, the more eager the children were to come back and play.
“There’s not much to do for kids this age around here,” he said. “So after they get home from school, they need a way to use up some energy and a positive way to focus their minds. It wasn’t my idea to form a sports league; it was theirs,” Fontenette said. Similarly, Fitchett heard from the girls at the park that they wanted some opportunities, too.
So in 2009, the Gardere Young Alliance was born. It started with football, basketball and cheerleading, and progressed to baseball and dance teams.
“We started with about 100 boys from 5 to about 14 years old — though we do have one 4- almost 5-year-old out there,” Fontenette said.
“And about 50 girls,” Fitchett said, “so 150 all together. It started that big, and it never got smaller.”
And they could keep adding teams, Fontenette said, because they’re only limited by the number of coaches they have.
“That just shows how great a need there was for something to fill a hole,” Fontenette said.
The coaches just rented a building across the street from the park that will serve as a headquarters for the league, he said, and an additional place for the players to come and study or just hang out. It will double as much-needed storage space for equipment.
“Up to now, the storage space has been my house, my attic, her house, wherever we could find space,” he said.
There are many organizations working together to create coordinated opportunities for this neighborhood, Fontenette said, and all of them, including the sports league, serve as chances to address the whole child, not just one aspect.
“We want to know how they’re doing in school, how they’re doing at home; we want to provide spiritual lessons,” he said.
Children who participate in league play also often sign up for tutoring sessions across the street at the Gardere Initiative, a separate outreach group with offices on Ned Avenue, and practice times are coordinated before and after tutoring sessions.
When they started, violent crime was commonplace in Gardere, Fitchett said, and the league was established as a haven for children after school.
“It’s not gone, but it is better,” Fitchett said.
“It came from a desire to keep them safe and out of trouble. My own coaches acted as guides and mentors to me, and I try to do the same for these kids,” Fontenette said.
But it never stops after practice, he said.
“We both have been known to make rounds of the neighborhood from time to time, checking on people,” he said.
For the past five years, the two have been coordinating practice teams and volunteer coaches — mostly parents, he said — including equipment, snacks and water, plus organizing weekend games.
Fitchett and her cheerleaders and dancers work together to plan choreography, making up chants and cheers, she said.
Parental involvement is also key, Fontenette said, and they’ve also had a lot of support, both from the Gardere community itself and other organizations with outreach groups operating in the area.
“The Burbank Crime Prevention District has played a big role in helping us, and the Sheriff’s Office,” he said.
Clayton Hayes, of The Chapel’s Siegen Lane Connections Ministry, also has played a large role in their success, he said. “He connects us with other people to help fill our needs, whatever they are,” Fontenette said. “We’ve been blessed on a financial level.”
They’ve also connected with other sports leagues like theirs to create opportunities for organized games.
They’ve learned a lot in the past five years, both said.
“Kids aren’t always going to get along,” Fontenette said, watching as Fitchett mediates an after-practice argument that erupts between two cheerleaders. “But giving them an outlet to settle those difference, and the tools to do it, is important.”
It’s a team effort that has taken time to perfect, they both say, but it’s worked out well.
“It becomes a second full-time job, but I love it. I love working with these kids. We’re not going anywhere,” she said.
In fact, due to popular demand, the alliance plans to add a soccer league for the first time this year.
For more information, or to volunteer, visit www.facebook.com/pages/Gardere-Youth-Alliance/234283556652903.
Volunteers may also contact The Chapel and volunteer through the Connections Ministry, for sports teams, www.connectionsministry.com/youth-sports-teams, or cheer and dance, www.connectionsministry.com/cheerleading-and-dance-team.
To view a photo gallery from the group, click here.