Touchdown! Jets star Garrett Wilson tosses pigskin around at Melrose YMCA

gift of game
New York Jets star wide receiver Garrett Wilson ran drills with kids at La Central YMCA in Melrose on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. Wilson was on hand as part of Wilson Sporting Goods’ “Gift of Game” program.
Photo ET Rodriguez

The smell of sweaty bodies, the sound of bouncing basketballs, the blur of fastballs whipping across the gymnasium floor – it was a busy Saturday at La Central YMCA on Westchester Avenue in Melrose as hundreds of parents and children filled the space.

Wilson’s Sporting Goods’ “Gift of Game” – which launched in 2022 – gave 200 families a free one-year membership to the South Bronx-located Y while the kids on hand, aged 5-18 years old, received free basketballs, baseball gloves and practiced with New York Jets star wide receiver Garrett Wilson and two members of the exhibition baseball team Savannah Bananas.

“Garrett! Garrett! Garrett!” chanted the children who welcomed Wilson with roaring applause as he entered the gym. The kids were eager to impress as they ran their hearts out around traffic cones with footballs tucked firmly against their chests.

Wilson, the highly touted skill position player out of Ohio State, is in his second year with the Jets and considered one of the league’s rising stars. During his visit, he provided the starry-eyed youngsters with words of wisdom. “Listen to your elders and put in the work,” he said.

Also in attendance were Bill Leroy and Christian Dearman of the Savannah Bananas, a Georgia-based team formed in 2016 by Fans First Entertainment which brands itself as a “world famous baseball circus.”

“We want to be able to provide such a great mentorship to these kids with the time that we have on this earth,” said Dearman, who has been playing and performing with the Bananas for six years.

Dearman has also worked as a counselor at several baseball camps and received his master’s in sports administration and business from St. Thomas University. And his skills and experience were in full swing on Dec. 2, as he taught several children proper throwing form and ran baseball drills while providing positive reinforcement and words of encouragement.

“They’re so bought in and listening to everything we say,” added Dearman. “These kids from the Bronx, they’re some good kids.”

Martha Perez, 17, plays softball for University Heights Secondary School and poses with Bill Leroy of the Savannah Bananas exhibition baseball team at La Central. Photo ET Rodriguez

One of those kids was Martha Perez, 17, who was one of the handful of teenage girls practicing with more than a dozen boys. Perez plays softball for University Heights Secondary School on St. Ann’s Avenue and had just joined the Y two weeks prior. She was thrilled to be able to have a facility where she could practice and train outside of school while being recognized as a female athlete.

“It’s very supportive and we’re finally getting some recognition,” said Perez. “To feel how comfortable the environment is, they’re very welcoming.”

And Perez’s sentiments align with the Y’s vision and mission as spaces of fitness tend to be male dominated.

“I’m really happy to see a lot of young ladies come out today,” said Meishay Gattis, executive director of both La Central and the Northeast Bronx Ys, both part of the YMCA of Greater New York. “We want to create a safe space for them as well.”

Opened in October 2022, the 50,000-square-foot Y on Westchester Avenue has two indoor pools, a full fitness center, a childcare room, a gymnasium and is the only facility of its kind in the South Bronx. Windows and a complete glass façade at the front entrance allow for plenty of natural light and provide members ample space and resources to stay fit and healthy.

City Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr., who is one La Central’s 2,600 members, voted on building the YMCA after first being elected to the seat in a special election back in 2016. The Bronx is double the geographic size of Manhattan but has less than half of the Y facilities.

“When you’re having discussions of where to place these types of programs, they never mention the South Bronx,” said Salamanca. “We are struggling with obesity, hypertension and a lot has to do with – not having access to be able to exercise.”

As a South Bronx native, Salamanca understands the health disparities of the area as he brandished his asthma pump while speaking with the Bronx Times, which he attributes to growing up in the heavily polluted neighborhood of Hunts Point.

Christian Dearman, player for the Savannah Bananas baseball team, teaches seven-year-old, Aaron Arrieta, proper pitching form at La Central’s gymnasium. Photo ET Rodriguez

As of 2021, asthma-related emergency department visits among children ages 5 to 17 years old were highest in the South Bronx compared with all other New York City neighborhoods, while the borough also has the highest prevalence of obesity amongst children and adults. Bronx County also ranked last of 62 New York state counties in terms of health outcomes, according to the 2022 County Health Rankings National Findings Report which includes neighborhoods in the southern portion of the borough known as food deserts. These areas have limited access to quality nutrition, rely heavily on processed foods and are often oversaturated with bodegas in place of supermarkets.

Facilities like the Y — there are only four of in the Bronx (including the YMHA in Riverdale) — are instrumental to teaching healthy lifestyles, fostering friendships and providing children with a space where they can remain occupied in an environment conducive to education and better living. This summer, La Central, along with two other Bronx-based Ys shared a $50,000 grant from clean energy provider Ørsted to help subsidize membership fees.

“In the Bronx, we don’t have anything,” said Maria Feliciano who lives above La Central and was able to obtain a membership for herself and her two sons at $45 a month through La Central’s sliding scale membership.

In addition to suffering from a plethora of health disparities, the South Bronx is also part of the poorest congressional district in the country with 36.2% of the population below the poverty line.

“It’s like a one stop shop here — programming, health, educating you on survival tactics (like swimming) and most importantly it takes kids off the streets,” said Salamanca. “Get them tired, get them home and do it all over again the next day.”

Reach ET Rodriguez at [email protected]. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes