With a mission to empower, coach, instill confidence and mentor youth, the United Chaplains State of New York Athletic League is back in the Bronx.
New York chaplains Victor Matos and Rosaly Santana run the league, catering to teenagers between 14 and 19 who are able to partake in friendly and family-oriented competition.
The chaplains get help by coaches from both the NYPD, and New York firefighters, as well as teachers from around the Bronx.
“We want to make sure that these kids get along and compete together,” Santana said. “But at the end of the day, we are family. “Ultimately, we have to have each other’s back.”
One league is one team, despite being on opposing sides during game play.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a red shirt, a green shirt or a blue shirt, we’re all one family,” Matos said. “Even if you’re not playing, we cheer for the other person.”
At the chaplains league, the religion of believing in one’s individual dreams is chief.
“I don’t preach (Christianity) to the kids because we accept people of all faiths,” Matos said. “What I do preach to them is belief and following your dreams. We are a Christian organization, but we don’t use that to bring people in. We want all types of kids to come in.”
The league is free of charge as well.
“We don’t want to turn any kid away,” Matos said. “That’s the worst feeling in the world. We don’t believe in that. What we call ‘money’ is their grades. I check their grades, and I check with their parents. How they’re doing in school is the money that they give me.”
Playing sports as a teenager can directly correlate to a successful life, Matos added.
“One thing we continuously tell our kids is that if you can play great in sports, and you can work hard on that floor, then you can work hard in school,” he said. “If you can be great in school, you can be great in life.”
The league is currently playing volleyball, which continues through the rest of spring.
“It’s amazing how much you can get from something as simple as volleyball,” Matos said. “We decided on volleyball because the kids loved it so much last year that they began recruiting kids this year. We couldn’t say no. We had to do volleyball again this year.”
But it’s not just about the popular sports, but the ones that get overlooked more often than not as well.
“If you walk along the Bronx and into parks all summer long, the basketball courts are always full and all of the handball courts are taken,” Matos said. “What aren’t taken are the tennis courts or the volleyball nets. A lot of kids don’t realize that you can get scholarships for these sports.”
And a larger variety of sports are still to come for the chaplains league.
“We’re going to do softball, we’re looking into flag football and maybe dodge ball,” Matos said. “We want to bring different sports into our venue.”
All levels of athleticism are encouraged, too.
“We have all skill sets,” Matos said. “We have kids who are really good, and we have kids who are just beginning. What I do notice, with the family aspect, is a lot of kids take the time to help out the kids who are just beginning. It’s not a one-way thing, it’s about the team.”
Despite being focused around athletics, the league is more than just a game.
“We always try to incorporate different kinds of speakers,” Matos said. “We encourage these speakers to talk about believing in themselves and following their dreams. That’s what it comes down to.”
Those speakers have included, at least recently, female bodybuilder Jackie Estrada and actor Victor Cruz.
While donating time to speak, Estrada gave away free memberships to her gym while Cruz presented an acting scholarship to a member of the program.
For now, the chaplains league is held at IN-Tech Academy on Tibbett Avenue. And with softball season coming soon, the chaplains look forward to continuing their tradition of competition mixed with positivity.
“So far, for our second year, it’s been outstanding,” Matos said. “It’s fun to see the competition. If each kid can walk out of the gym with a positive mentality, we feel that they will be very successful in life.
“That’s our main mission.”
CORRECTION: Victor Matos and Rosaly Santana are chaplains who serve throughout the state. A story in the April 19 edition about the United Chaplains State of New York Athletic League provided a more specific organization they were chaplains for, which are positions they do not formally hold.