Located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Camden, New Jersey, has long been a city of women. For years, Camden topped the FBI’s list of the 10 most dangerous places in America, and the community has lost many men to drugs and crime. As a result, up to 60% of the city’s households are headed by females, the highest percentage in the area. But as is often the case, Camden’s struggles have revealed its strengths-and never have those been more apparent than on a humid afternoon at 10th and Elm on the city’s north side. There, a handful of moms sit clustered on splintering wooden bleachers watching their daughters, ages 9 to 12, play softball.
Most of the players are here because of their powerhouse coach, Shirley Irizarry. In 2013, Shirley started recruiting neighborhood girls to a newly formed division of the North Camden Little League, which was founded in 2011 by a community organizer named Bryan Morton who was determined to get Camden’s boys off the streets.
“When Bryan started talking about bringing the league back for the boys, I wanted that for my girls too,” says Shirley, whose daughters, Bianca Byrd and Aiyanah Irizarry, were 8 and 4 at the time. “I was a single mom, and I didn’t have a lot of money. I wanted them to have a safe place to play.” Interest was high - in the span of three seasons, the softball division grew from 20 players to 200.
During those same years, the baseball diamond at Pyne Poynt Park, where the boys play, was getting a $4 million makeover. Today, the boys relish the park’s covered dugouts and manicured outfields. College scouts regularly attend games to watch them play. The news media has touted the park’s transformation from a bustling open-air drug market to one of the most beautiful fields in the country.
But on 10th Street, there are no scouts, no shade, no lights, and no lines on the field. The girls swing outdated bats, and the four batting helmets they shared until recently - donations from other leagues - didn’t seem to fit anyone. But none of that has deterred Shirley or the league’s parents, coaches, or players at all. They know they’re changing Camden, one game - and one girl - at a time.
“These girls are here with their teammates, building each other up,” Shirley says. She’s momentarily distracted as she watches Aiyanah, now 12, wallop a double into left field, but she’s got a point to make. “When they’re here after school and during the summer, they’re safe. And we’re showing them their bodies are for something more than showing off for boys. They’re learning what it means to be strong, mentally and physically.”
Kyla Kenny, 31, runs a college and career program at a local school. On spring and summer evenings, she coaches one of the league’s 12-and-under teams.
“It’s a space where they don’t have to think about what happened at school that day, or what might be happening in their neighborhood, and can just be kids learning something alongside other kids,” she says.
At the end of every practice, Kyla gathers the girls in a circle for “shout-outs.” Each player compliments one of her teammates on a great play or a standout moment of sportsmanship.
“They’re calling one another out for doing good things and lifting one another up,” Kyla says. “It’s creating an opportunity to see other girls and young women as their allies.”
On the other side of town, the Wildcats, made up of older players ranging in age from 13 to 16, are holding practice on the softball field at Rutgers University-Camden. They can use the facility, nestled beneath the Ben Franklin Bridge, on summer evenings when the college players don’t need it.
Yaslynn Ramos, 16, Jade Williams, 16, and Elyanna Nuñez, 15, sit in the dugout, recounting their most recent tournament while they wait for their turns at the plate. They’re talking about the bats the girls on the other teams used-brand-new and high-tech-and how weird it was that no one would call them the Wildcats, the team name emblazoned on the fronts of their jerseys.
“All the other teams were getting called by their names, but they kept calling us ‘the Camden girls,’ ” Elyanna says. “There’s a certain stereotype that follows us, even if we’re just there to play softball.”
The teenagers wonder whether they should say something if that happens again. They feel a growing sense of determination - one they attribute to softball.
“There are always going to be people who knock us down because we grew up in Camden, because of our race, because we’re girls,” Elyanna says. “But we’ve learned how to be a team and how to pull ourselves back up.”
Shirley has developed similar determination. She dreams of a home field for the girls’ league with all the amenities. A few years back, she went door-to-door with a petition that asked the city to renovate the field at 10th Street.
“Last season the county put up a new fence and put new benches in the dugouts,” she says, “but it’s still a long way from OK. We need a redesign with storage, lighting, seating, and a concession stand so we can make some money for the league and be self-sufficient.”
Shirley also wants to replace a sign dedicated to Samalica Ortiz, an 11-year-old power hitter who was killed by an errant bullet during a birthday party in the neighborhood
in the 1990s. “It’s part of my dream to see the field rededicated to her,” she says.
That dream may come true. Rumors have been floating around the softball community that a plan is in the works for major renovations to the field, though nothing formal has materialized. When something does, Shirley is prepared to dedicate time to fundraising. In the meantime, they’ll just keep doing what they’ve always done: making the best of what they have.
Shirley’s daughter Bianca, now 16, helps coach Kyla’s team and plays on the varsity squad at a local high school. She’s soft-spoken, but her voice gains an edge whenever she talks about what the league means-not just to her, but to her community.
“We have to do more, because every one of these girls deserves so much,” Bianca says. “When I tell people I’m from Camden, they’re so startled. It’s not like there’s no violence and crime in Camden, but things are changing. We’re changing it.”
Bianca has designs on college. Elyanna and all her teammates do too. They want to be lawyers, veterinarians, forensics experts. They want to prove the same thing they prove to themselves every time they step onto the field: that girls from Camden can be strong, disciplined, and determined. That they can pick themselves up and move forward as a team, despite obstacles. That they can succeed with the things they have-and fight for the things they don’t have. That girls from Camden can win.
To donate to the Camden softball league, visit their Facebook page.
This story originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Woman's Day.
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