ABCD’s ‘Field of Dreams’ fuses social activism and summer fun
Frank Renzulli is a storyteller, and one of his favorite stories involves his first summer job.
He was a kid growing up in the Maverick Square housing development in East Boston in the 1970s when he heard that some social service agency was hiring for summer jobs. He applied, and was quickly hired to pick up trash in nearby Orient Heights. There was just one catch.
“You had to be 14,” he said. “I was 13, which they found out after a couple of weeks. So they fired me. But I went back the next summer, and every year after that.”
At the time, Renzulli says, he almost never left his neighborhood, or even his corner of his neighborhood. But the summer job changed that.
“It was a glimpse of what people did during the day, while we sat on the porch or did whatever we did in the projects,” said Renzulli.
That glimpse opened up a whole new world for Renzulli — the beginning of an exploration that has taken him to Los Angles, where he is now a television producer and screenwriter. His credits include “The Sopranos.”
The summer job program itself is also a success story. Action for Boston Community Development is the city’s biggest antipoverty agency. Its jobs program, known as SummerWorks, now employs up to 1,000 teens each year.
A large portion of the money that pays for those jobs is raised in one day each year. The agency hosts a “Field of Dreams” fund-raiser annually at Fenway Park. Local companies field teams that compete in an all-day softball tournament. The 20th edition of the popular event will be held on June 6. Some 18 teams have signed up to compete.
The fund-raiser arose out of a 1997 brainstorming session. Federal and state money for summer jobs programs was beginning to run dry, and officials were searching for a way to keep them funded. A sports event seemed like a novel and effective way to attract well-heeled corporate sponsors.
To make it work, the Red Sox had to agree to participate as the host, and in those days Fenway was treated as hallowed ground. No one got to use the field.
But the Sox ownership agreed to the idea, and the current ownership team (led by John Henry, also the publisher of the Globe) has continued to enthusiastically embrace it, allowing ABCD free use of Fenway Park every year, as well as concessions and other goodies.
Over the course of 20 years, “Field of Dreams” has raised just shy of $5 million, which translates into thousands of jobs for teens. By tradition, a team of doctors from Massachusetts Eye and Ear Institute — one of the original participants — plays in the 7 a.m. game that kicks off the festivities.
A softball tournament is a fun way to raise money, but that shouldn’t overshadow the serious needs it helps to address.
“Our SummerWorks youth often come from families in dire need,” said ABCD executive director John Drew. “Some . . . are homeless. Some have parents working, but struggling to make ends meet. Summer employment can mean the world to these young men and women in need.”
The summer jobs program is just a part of ABCD’s antipoverty portfolio, which ranges from fuel assistance to a two-year college for nontraditional students. But “Field of Dreams” day goes to the heart of its mission.
We get to the kids “before they get the idea of dropping out [of school] or falling back, and we keep them as long as we can,” said Drew.
“Field of Dreams” is a novelty, in that it is a social program that’s also fun. For one day, the donors live out the fantasy of playing at Fenway Park, and families they will never meet reap the benefit. Summer in Boston might not get much better than that.