Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership builds futures
Non-profit organization visits the University for a weekend full of events
Non-profit organization Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership embarked on its second-annual visit to the University last weekend. Founded in 2008 by Simon Cataldo, now a third-year Law student, Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership provides academic support and leadership training to at-risk youth through teaching lacrosse.
Cataldo said he began the program as a way to manage his rowdy middle school class at Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, where he was stationed as a teacher for Teach for America. Roughly 95 students are now involved in the program, which spans two middle schools.
“Four days before school started, the principal told me that I’d be the new seventh and eighth grade special ed math teacher,” Cataldo said. “I get in there totally overwhelmed. My class is out of control, and the only thing I could think of after a few months of constant failure was just to take my worst boys out to the handball court beside school and teach them how to play lacrosse.”
According to Cataldo, his students underwent a complete transformation and ended the year with the highest state exam scores on record for special education students at the school. With such tangible results, Cataldo decided to expand the program further in the following years.
“It’s easy to say sports help kids with school, but how do you know unless you’re in school with them?” Cataldo said. “Making sure that you’re holding them accountable on the field and in the classroom. It’s important for us to have both.”
The organization has seen increases in participating students’ GPAs and in the past three years, students in the Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership program have earned more than $5.5 million dollars in academic scholarship offers, Cataldo said.
“They need an opportunity to form a new identity that they get to choose, instead of the identity that’s thrust upon them by their surroundings, which a lot of the times can be negative,” he said. “Lacrosse is traditionally an affluent sport that’s played in white suburbs, so this is an opportunity for kids to start. There are some racial harmony benefits.”
Last weekend featured numerous events for the 35 attendees. Activities included a Black Law Students Association panel, a mini-lecture from Law Prof. Barbara Armacost, a tour of the University and a scrimmage against Western Albemarle High School during halftime at Saturday’s Men’s Lacrosse game against Syracuse. Program director Wyatt Melzer, University alumni and former long stick midfielder for the varsity lacrosse team, has high hopes for the impact of the weekend.
“I want them to leave with a different perception of the future,” Melzer said. “A lot of kids our age, when asked what they wanted to do, at least had a general idea. These kids have no idea because they were never told they could work hard and get anywhere.”
Third-year Law student and Advisory Board member Tunji Williams led the Black Law Students Association component of the visit. Williams attributed the program’s success to its founder.
“Simon’s been able to find a way to measure the impact of lacrosse on these kids’ lives.” Williams said. “He has the X-factor with these kids. These kids really respect and love him because they see the passion he has. He’s an incredible leader.”
Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership plans to expand to five cities with five host school sites in the next 10 years.
“At the end of the day, what I want to do is give a kid a lacrosse stick and let them form their own ideas of their dreams,” Melzer said. “We always say lacrosse opens doors, especially for a kid from [the] inner-city.”