A safe place to play and positive influences can be luxuries for some children across the country, but one Damascus man is hoping to change that with the help of a well-known national organization.
For the past six years, longtime Damascus resident Steve Salem has worked as the executive director of the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that works to build character and teach life lessons to disadvantaged young people living in distressed communities through sports themed initiatives.
The foundation, named in honor of former Major League Baseball manager Cal Ripken Sr. — the father of famed Baltimore Orioles shortstop and third baseman Cal Ripken Jr. — has reached more than 600,000 children in 48 states during the last five years.
"These are kids that are at risk of being gang members, at high risk for juvenile crime, high risk of being a victim of a crime,” he said. “It’s shocking some of the conditions that these kids live through. It’s very sad the set of circumstances that [they face]. I try to expose [my twin boys] to some of these things so they know how fortunate they are. Kids in Damascus are very fortunate to be living in such a nice community."
The foundation has worked to establish partnerships with law enforcement, in which officers serve as mentors for the mostly middle-aged children the foundation serves.
Another initiative, Badges for Baseball, was created along with the U.S. Department of Justice, and allows officers to teach youth baseball skills while incorporating life lessons into the game.
"What’s happening is magic,” Salem said. "You have cops and kids who have literally been killing each other now bonding as coach and player, mentors and mentees. These kids are thinking about law enforcement as a career opportunity. It’s about putting these kids in a positive place with people who care about them.”
Several such programs have been established in six states, including Maryland, Mississippi and North Carolina. Salem said the organization currently is working with Montgomery County law enforcement to form a badges program in the area.
"I would bet that we would have something started in Montgomery County by the end of this year,” he said.
Before joining the foundation, Salem served as vice president of government relations for Boys and Girls Clubs of America, helping to raise more than $500 million for local clubs.
He also has worked closely with leading youth advocates including John Walsh and Robbie Callaway to help pass critical child safety legislation, including the Adam Walsh Child Safety and Protection Act of 2006 and the National Amber Alert program in 2003.
"All we're trying to do really is to help these kids have a better chance at life,” he said.
Mentorship is not the only resource that the organization brings to distressed communities. The group also works to create a safe environment for children to play in by building youth development parks, with help from local partners. More than five of these low-maintenance, multipurpose parks have been completed so far, with construction under way for parks in areas such as Annapolis, Harrisburg, Pa., and Naples, Fla., among others. Each one of the new facilities costs $1 million to build.
"We're literally knocking down crack houses to build this [one] park [in Baltimore],” Salem said.
The group will serve about 150,000 youth this year and has set a goal to help 300,000 next year.