One of the non-profits Orion is supporting in July is Memphis Bears, Inc. Founder Craig Littles started the youth sports organization in 1996 as a way to help lift North Memphis communities and neighborhoods. We asked him a few questions to learn more about Memphis Bears and the stories he shared are truly inspiring. We’re honored to help spread the word about the difference he and his organization are making in Memphis:
What inspired you to create the Memphis Bears organization?
It was my experiences and memories as a youth and during my tour of duty in the U.S. Army that prompted me to serve my community. As I sat in my foxhole, in a monsoon during Desert Storm, I asked God, if he got me out of this war, “Please show me what you would have me to do.”
Recalling the impact that sports made in my life, I recruited several of my childhood friends and youth from the surrounding public housing complexes (i.e. Getwell Gardens, Hurt Village, Ridgecrest and Walter Simmons projects) and founded Memphis Bears, Inc. (MBI) with 25 boys and 5 girls in 1996.
Currently, we work with boys and girls ages 5 to 18 in several different activities and have been afforded the opportunity to compete in sports on a national level. We encourage our youth to not only compete on the field but also compete in their classrooms for the highest grades possible and to display their best behavior at all times in life.
Memphis Bears, Inc. recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. What accomplishment during this period are you most proud of?
One of my proudest accomplishments is being able to expose youth to a world outside of their daily lives such as participating in national competitions, experiencing places like Disney World in person and getting the feel of sand between their toes while visiting the ocean’s beaches. We have been able to redirect kids’ negative energy into more positive constructive energy while exposing them to worldly adventures and scenery, and even watching some of our youth play on the biggest setting in sports, the NFL.
But the greatest accomplishment is being able to save kids from the streets of Memphis and cultivate them into positive and productive members of society.
Could you share an example of the difference Memphis Bears has made in the life of a young person?
A few years ago, after a long summer practice, I took my team to eat at the local Taco Bell in Frayser. All of the athletes got in line and placed their orders except for one. He walked away from everybody and was standing alone. I approached him and asked what was wrong. He first said, “Nothing coach.” But I could see the look in his eyes that something was truly wrong. I asked him again and he finally said, “I don’t have any money.” I told him that I was paying for him and to go ahead and order him something. He then said, “Coach, I’ve never eaten here before and I don’t know how or what to order.” At the time, this was a kid that had no parental support, had never been outside of the Frayser community, nor had he been to a restaurant before but lived only a short distance away so I helped him place the order.
It was my dream to never turn anyone away from the program. I just trusted God to make a way for my volunteer staff and I to serve all youth. No child left behind is my motto. We waived all of his fees as we so often do for many of our participants. That year, our football teams played in the Nationals, in Daytona Beach, FL and he was able to travel with us. I am most proud of the fact that he is currently playing for a Division I school and doing great! I continue to hear from him often.
What is something about Memphis Bears that most people don’t know?
Memphis Bears, Inc. has served our community since 1996. We assist approximately 200-300 children annually and work with 80+ volunteers annually and yet the organization doesn’t have a central place to call home where we can gather children and volunteers together, provide services, maintain records and equipment.
Currently, our organization conducts meetings in local restaurants, the steps and parking lots of Trezevant High School, public libraries, and volunteers’ homes and even under tents – anywhere safe within the community. Not only can that become cumbersome and confusing, this practice can place children and volunteers in danger, given the high crime rate in the area. In addition, the funding that has gone to renting meeting spaces could have been better utilized to help youth through Memphis Bears programs. Because the low-income children served by the organization have limited access to transportation to points outside the community, it is necessary for meetings and programs to take place within the community. Except for the local school (which charges a fee and is usually booked with its own activities), there is no secure indoor facility that will accommodate a large meeting.
As we celebrate our 20th year anniversary, we are ready to incept year round programs where we service youth during after-school hours and summer months in an effort to continue cultivating young minds by increasing our education, discovery and volunteerism pieces of our programs. It is our goal to partner with Shelby County Schools, Shelby County Sheriffs Department, Memphis Police Department and other agencies under the National Police Athletic League (NPAL).
Your organization has done so much to help make Memphis a better place. What would enable you to do even more?
MBI has chosen to construct a new facility in Frayser. Having our own space will save approximately $10,000 each year on meeting space fees. These savings would be used for tutoring, athletic programs or other services that directly benefit youth.
The Memphis Youth Academy of Dreams/Field of Dreams will be a youth empowerment, enhancement and enrichment academy in the Memphis Metro area. The program’s focus is to promote education, discovery, teen workforce development and youth sports participation. As the first and only facility of its kind, in the Greater Memphis Metro area, we will draw upon a diverse population to provide a fun, safe, structured and unique environment where we will provide youth with tutoring, computer labs, life skill courses, recreational activities, sports therapy, athletic training and athletic competitions. Our facility will be open to the community and other organizations for meetings and other events that will promote positive and educational awareness to the community.
As part of this first phase, we are seeking commitments to help fund the installation of a new athletic artificial turf field located on our property. This funding will help us secure a major field grant from USA Football for $50,000. Contributions will be used to prepare the land, including building a drainage base, which will provide a level surface, and installation of the turf panels. We anticipate the turf lasting at least 12 years. The turf will also require significantly less and cheaper maintenance than a natural grass field. Having a “home field” to host athletic events on will enable us to have a reliable safe place for our youth to engage in sports even before the completion of the Memphis Youth Academy of Dreams. Like the Academy, the field will reduce both rental fees incurred by the organization and the number of logistical issues that our families will have to face.
Interested in helping MBI? Visit Memphis Youth Academy of Dreams to learn more.