Growing up in Northeast Austin, Booker Gilbert saw lots of negative influences around him. Some cousins and friends went down the wrong path. Some ended up in prison. He was determined not to let that happen to him.
Years later, after earning a business degree and starting a successful insurance career, Gilbert heard about RBI Austin.
“A friend was telling me about RBI Austin and how they utilize baseball as a means of mentoring at risk youth and I’m like, ‘man, how do I get involved?’” said Gilbert. “I was blown away about the impact that RBI Austin was having in my city.”
In 2015, Gilbert jumped right into RBI Austin’s mentor program and he was matched with Leighton, a young boy growing up under the care of a single mom. His dad was in jail and not in the picture. As a child of an incarcerated father, Leighton is six times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than other children. He had anger issues and his defense mechanism was to lash out verbally and physically.
“Leighton doesn’t know his real dad,” said mother, Willie Mae. “Mr. Gilbert became that male role model and that really influenced Leighton a lot. I cheer Leighton on, but when another positive person cheers him on, he believes it more.”
Gilbert did more than cheer on Leighton. He got him involved in baseball. It turned out to be an experience that has been life changing.
“We introduced him to baseball, and I think he surprised himself. You could see that self esteem building up in him. He’s challenged himself to do something that he had not done before,” said Gilbert. “I don’t think he’s had a chance to display his leadership characteristics. Baseball has helped him tap that characteristic that he didn’t know he had. That’s the transformation that I have seen and I can only attest that to his play in baseball games and seeing positive adult male figures in his life.”
More than two years later, Leighton continues to play in the RBI Austin summer baseball league. His team reached the championship last year.
“Baseball is like a metaphor of life,” said Booker. “Like the game, you’re going to have ebbs and flows in life. So how do you learn from mistakes? The only mistake is making the same mistake over and over.”
“I can see the changes. I’m not saying he’s perfect, but I’m not seeing that fight every day like I used to,” said Willie Mae. “It takes a community to raise a child. RBI and Mr. Booker are that community. RBI Austin changed our lives and has made Leighton the young man that he is today.”
Consistent, enduring relationships are game changers in the lives of youth. Through the RBI Austin mentor-match program and baseball/softball programs, 142 of the 1,171 RBI Austin kids are engaged in a year-round relationship with an RBI coach or mentor. That’s just 12 percent of the program’s participants.
To find out how you can help, visit www.rbiaustin.org.
Article by SportsXpress and photos by RBI Austin