“With the Monarchs, we always made sure that you’re always comfortable around us, you can always be yourself,” Mo’ne Davis said. “And I think it’s 10 times more fun when you’re playing with people you’ve known your entire life.”
Davis was the first female to join the Anderson Monarchs, joining the team at the age of 7 and playing through high school.
The Monarchs are a travel team, participating in soccer, basketball, and baseball games with the same roster year round, they call the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood of South Philadelphia home.
The center and team are named for Marian Anderson, the world renowned contralto singer from Philadelphia. Anderson was also a civil rights icon and the first Black performer at the Metropolitan opera in New York City. When the Daughters of the American Revolution would not let her perform at their venue in Washington D.C. in 1939, first lady Elenor Roosevelt, a DAR member, invited Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where a crowd of more than 75,000 showed up.
Today, that trailblazing spirit lives on through youth sports in the same community Marian Anderson came from. This year, the Anderson Monarchs are branching out, launching its first girls team for soccer, basketball, and softball.
“For every kid we’ve had, there are probably a thousand more that will never get the chance,” Steve Bandura, program director of the Monarchs, said. “How many more Mo’ne Davises are out there? That’s why I wanted to start this girls program.”
Back in 1989, Bandura originally started a boxing club in the same rec center. He agreed to run the boxing program for a friend and soon discovered youth sports was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Bandura soon quit his office job and continued recruiting and turned the boxing club into a couple of baseball teams.
After a couple years of competing against Northeast Philadelphia travel clubs, the Anderson Monarchs were formed.
“And then it didn’t take long before I realized there was nothing else for the kids to do,” Bandara said. “There were no sports organizations down here for kids, not for Black kids. And I’ve just felt like that was really unfair, because that was my life growing up playing sports and boys clubs all over northeast Philly. So I decided to do team sports with them.”
Research by Ohio University found just 16% of all boys who participate in youth sports are Black and only15% of all participants are Black girls.
Darius Isaac is a high school senior who has been a Monarch since he was 5 years old. He credits the organization for helping him find both his high school and college, where he’ll be playing baseball and basketball at Arcadia University.
“I think being with the Monarchs really helped me,” he said. “Not only athletically, but making me a better person every day.”
The inaugural softball game for the Monarchs took place on May 26 at the Monarchs field behind the rec center. There was enough interest and turnout that Bandura could have formed two teams. Aisha Simms, a South Philadelphia resident, has found the program to be very beneficial for her daughter.
“There’s really not too many things going on in the neighborhood, besides violence,” Simms said. “Things like they’re trying to keep a safe atmosphere or something positive going. So it’s very important for me to keep her busy and focused on something like this.”
Destiny Jackson, a South Philadelphia mother, found it difficult to get her daughter involved in youth activities, before she found the Monarchs.
“This was the only sports program around here,” she said.
The Monarchs start at 10-week developmental leagues for K-2nd graders for soccer, basketball, and baseball, for anyone in South Philadelphia. Players who show significant interest and ability in the sport are invited to the Monarchs travel programs, which begin at 3rd grade.
Unlike many youth travel sports teams, the Monarchs keep the same team together throughout the year so the group can grow and learn together. Most travel teams are assembled each season, with tryouts and roster cuts. The Monarchs focus on one group of kids playing together day in and day out.
The Monarchs have always had a closer bond than most of the travel teams in the area.
“Our teams were close, but not others we’ve played,” Bandua said. He recalled playing a team where the center fielder and left fielder did not even know each other’s names.
Isaac said his experiences playing as a guest for other teams showed their bond was nothing quite like the Monarchs.
“They would be really talented, really skilled,” Isaac said. “But in the dugout they wouldn’t be talking to each other. But with the Monarchs, everyone’s laughing and joking with each other. I feel like if you have that type of bond it makes up for the skill.”
These bonds and support are especially critical in a city ravaged by poverty. As the city with the distinction of being America’s poorest big city, with about 20% of the city’s population living below the federal poverty line. This becomes a significant access issue for kids wanting to get into sports as the Ohio University report shows when households make over $100,000 a year, children start playing sports at 6.3 years old, versus 8.1 for those who come from families who earn less than $100,000. The mean age for White children starting to play is 6.6 years old, yet 7.7 years old for Black children.
Simms feels the program excelled in assisting kids off the field just as much as it does on the field, if not more. Her daughter is on the travel team, but her nephew has also received tutoring from the program despite not even being on the team.
“If you have trouble in school, or something personal, they can assist you with that,” Simms said. “So it’s like a family type of setting.”
The Monarchs goal is to ensure every player who comes through the program goes to college. The team recently hired an education director who meets with families to discuss transitions from school to school, college, and financial aid applications. Every player who graduates from college gets their name and college hung up on the Monarchs field, behind the rec center down the first base line.
For the Monarchs, and because of Bandura, the care and concern for the players extends beyond the playing field. However, there’s concern that support may be disappearing.
“But a lot of the programs where I grew up, those programs are dying, because the better kids are leaving to go into the suburbs to those academy teams,” Bandura said.
The same Ohio University study further showed the disparities of participation in youth sports. When it comes to location, 89% of suburban kids participate in at least one organized sport while just 80% of kids from the city get the chance. In cites, 25% of high school girls have never participated in an organized sport. This could be, in part, due to lack of opportunities. Only 18 states currently have enough slots on girls teams for just half the female student population, compared to 31 states for boys. By the age of 6 years old, 60% of boys are on sports teams, while that percentage drops to 47% for girls.
The Monarchs have always kept their network, with many former players returning to coach after their playing days are over. Bandura has coached several children of the original Monarch teams from the ‘90s, and he hopes to coach their grandchildren as well.
“I try to tell all the young kids that school is so important,” Davis said. “It can open so many doors for you and to get your plaque up on the fence so other Monarchs can see what you’ve done, and you can inspire them as well.”
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