- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2016

CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) - Next door to Pyne Poynt Park, its namesake documentary about the North Camden Little League was projected onto an inflatable screen, a special showing of the film for the people who inspired it.

Onscreen, North Camden Little League President Bryan Morton walked down a stretch of 6th Street, the “heroin highway” as he called it, talking about the drug corners the kids walk by on their way to play baseball at the park. Many of those kids watched from the auditorium seats.

Morton walked to the back of the auditorium at the Mastery Schools of Camden-North Camden Campus and whispered to filmmaker Steve Ercolani: “It gets better and better every time I see it.”

“Pyne Poynt” was the first foray into documentary film by journalists Ercolani and Gabe Dinsmoor and premiered at the New York Independent Film Festival in April. On Thursday, it will be screened at The Factory in Collingswood.

The Courier-Post (https://on.cpsj.com/1qX8ppb) reports that the film doesn’t just focus on baseball. It is an examination of change in Camden- from the overhaul of the police force to the renovation of the park and ball field through a major public works project -as seen through the eyes of Little League players and coaches.

Within the first two minutes of the film, baseball practice is abruptly interrupted by a stabbing in the park, the result of a dispute between apparent drug users.

“This says two things about these kids,” Morton tells the camera. “One, they’re resilient, because we’re back to baseball. But two, some part of them is numb. And so we’re going to try to use baseball to un-numb that.”

Born and raised in Camden, Morton’s mother couldn’t afford to enroll him in Little League, so he recalls participating only one season, mostly sitting on the bench. Despite that, he remembered it fondly.

“That grounded you,” he said. “I needed to ground the community again.”

It isn’t every youth coach who has had to convince drug dealers to take their business elsewhere during the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., or do a spot check of the field for needles, or had a gun pulled on them.

Morton has faced all of the above.

In 2011, Pyne Poynt Park was a haven for drug dealers and users, not for the community and its children. Morton was a teaching assistant at Rutgers University- Camden working on his master’s and had studied how the health of the community is dependent upon its environment. He thought restarting the Little League would be a positive influence on the neighborhood and the children.

The league isn’t only for the boys; 30 percent of the players are female and play on the softball teams. As a father of a little girl, Morton wanted to ensure a positive influence for the girls of Camden as well as the boys.

His original goal was to have 60 kids sign up. This year, Morton expects to end up with 780 players and 76 teams.

Morton met Ercolani, a Haddonfield native, when Ercolani was working on a story for Al Jazeera about the regionalization of the Camden Metro police department. Ercolani interviewed him as a community voice, used a few of his quotes, but Morton wouldn’t leave it at that.

Metro was important, Morton said he told him, but ultimately, the work of the police department was going to have to be sustained by the community.

“He kept texting me after the story about the league and wanting me to come out and check it out,” Ercolani said. “Addicts would shoot up right there, next to home plate, while they were playing. It was kind of an insane place.”

He talked friend and photographer Dinsmoor into collaborating on the project. Dinsmoor didn’t know much about Camden, but started researching it and saw parallels between Camden and his hometown of Baltimore.

They raised almost $16,000 on Kickstarter for the project, and added a few thousand out of their own pockets.

“I thought it was going to be a great story, a story that is not often told,” Dinsmoor said. “You often just hear about the homicide rate and not the great things people are doing in the community.”

That was what Morton was after, not something he refers to as the “Brian Williams” approach, a network documentary telling only the negative side of the story.

Morton introduced them to the community: “This is Gabe, this is Steve, they have carte blanche to the league, to the neighborhood.”

The filmmakers wanted their film to transcend the typical sports documentary, Dinsmoor said. They wanted to touch on other issues in Camden.

Filming ran from 2013 to 2015, so the redevelopment of Pyne Poynt Park during this time factors heavily into the storyline. The documentary ends on a celebratory note, as the players and family parade to the shiny new park for opening day.

Morton had been attending city meetings about the redevelopment since 2006, pushing for much-needed funds.

“When we started, everybody told us that it wasn’t going to happen, the field wasn’t going to happen,” Ercolani said. “People come in and make these promises and nothing ever gets done. Now we were coming in and we were going to have our hearts broken too. . So that’s why there’s that one scene where Angel’s literally just dumbstruck and he’s just looking at the field and all he keeps saying is, ‘This is just amazing.’”

Angel Ramos coaches the 16- to 19-year-olds. He and his wife, Dana, make sure the players are respectful, work hard and get good grades, and they have seen several of them go on to play college ball.

“I’ve got kids in Camden people didn’t notice,” Ramos said. “I’ve got college-bound kids.”

When the team goes to other cities for games, Ramos said, those teams often think of his team as the “ghetto” kids. Until they win. This July, he is taking his team to Chicago to play in front of 250 school and professional scouts.

“We can’t financially help them, but we can guide them,” Dana Ramos said.

The reorganization of the police department also plays into the film. In one scene, they film the stop-and-frisk of three suburbanites who have taken the bus into Camden to buy drugs.

“That specifically was important,” Ercolani said, “that people understood there’s a lot that’s wrong with this city and most of it has nothing to do with the people that are living here, it has to do with other people that have exploited the city for one reason or another.”

Henni Calderon, 17 years old when the film begins, harbors a deep mistrust of the police. But by the end, he is shown settling into his dorm room at Rutgers-Camden where he plans to study criminal justice and train to be a cop, maybe even go into the FBI.

“You can see how much I changed in just a few years,” Calderon said. “Just in that one year a lot happened and I developed as a person. And I love seeing that.”

Now 20, Calderon also coaches in the league. While he didn’t like baseball when he first started at age 11, it became a passion and a refuge during his teenage years.

“Kids in Camden aren’t what a lot of people think they are,” Calderon said. “We live in this dark world, but that’s not who we are.”

The other teenager the film focuses on is Joey Perez, who lost five of his family members in one year.

“It’s important to remember, North Camden is just nine square blocks,” Morton said. In 2012, he said, the neighborhood accounted for a third of the city’s homicides. “In a nine-square-block neighborhood, to have 20 homicides occurring . it affects every family because we’re so small.”

Perez promised his mother before she died he would play baseball. And he did, until he was forced to take a job instead. Now a young father, he works to support his family.

Perez and Calderon help drive home the themes in the film, but they also decided to follow them because they were likable, Ercolani said.

“Joey, I think, just has this infectious kind of laugh,” Ercolani said. “Immediately, you just like this kid and you want him to do well.”

While both men are doing fine, Morton said, it’s easy to draw a sociological lesson from their divergent experiences. “I can see two different outcomes solely based on whether kids are able to play.”

Dr. Sandra Bloom of Drexel University speaks in the film about the stress and trauma the people of Camden have experienced and the effect it has on the community. PTSD exists in a place like Camden as much as it does in a war zone, she says.

“I think that was the biggest thing for us,” Ercolani said. “There are a lot of people who look at these problems and they look at these behavioral issues as like moral failings or something, when in reality it’s a public health failing.”

There should be a shift in the way society views poverty and trauma, Dinsmoor said. “Instead of asking ‘What’s wrong with you?’ we should ask ‘What happened to you?’”

“If the film does one thing I hope they see these kids and fall in love with these kids and after seeing what they’ve been through maybe they understand why other kids like them have the struggles that they do and behave the way they do,” Ercolani said.

Morton hopes audiences walk away not only understanding that regular people can affect big changes, as they did with the park, but also contemplating the effects an environment has on the children who live there, and whether there is a social obligation to them.

“Hopefully, at the end of the day the answer is yes, we have an obligation, and the answer is as simple as baseball.”

___

Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.), https://www.courierpostonline.com/

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