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In One Afternoon, Bronx Activist Restores Courts of His Youth

Friday, May 31, 2013

When young Joe Zeigler went missing, his mom knew just where to find him.
 
She’d poke her head out of their home across the street from Soundview Park and see her son doing the same thing he did most days when he wasn’t in school: playing full-court basketball on one of the park’s two courts.
 
“On Sundays, the park and those courts are where the whole community comes together,” said Zeigler, 31. “It’s like our country club.”
 
Every Sunday, the ball would pound and sneakers would squeak for hours; shots would clang off the backboards or roll around the netless rims. Though the lines on the courts had long since been obscured by graffiti, the players did their best to call an honest game. And though garbage often overflowed from the trashcans in the park, families and friends came to cheer them on.
 
Zeigler went on to star as a shooting guard at nearby Monsignor Scanlan High School and later at Medaille College, near Buffalo. When he was away, he never forgot his memories of those games, those Sundays. And when he returned to the city and began working, a desire to give something back to that park – which remained the hub of the neighborhood despite its ragged condition – never left him. Last summer, he decided to do something about it.
 
“I realized, I don’t have a lot of money, but I have a lot of friends, and a little money – so I could really make a difference. I owed it to those courts.”

When Zeigler began an online campaign, many told him it was futile. They said others had tried to fix the park, but failed. Weeks later, he had raised $1600. He called his effort the G.Y.M. (Getting Youth Motivated) Project.
 
Last July 21st might have seemed like just another Saturday at the courts, but when Zeigler arrived with friends, four shiny orange rims, line stencils, paint, brooms, gardening tools and trash bags, everything at the courts was suddenly different. Within hours, the area had been transformed, and Zeigler felt a burden lift off him.
 
The day was interrupted, however, when a Parks Department employee stopped and questioned the group. Eventually, a Bronx Parks supervisor, Clinton Johnson, was called to the park. Zeigler took him aside and explained his story: growing up in the neighborhood, playing ball every weekend, honing the skills that would help send him to high school and college.
 
“I told my story and thought, ‘I really don’t want to go to jail for trying to fix a park. What would I tell my kids one day?’”

But Johnson was moved by the story. He told Zeigler he loved his drive and effort, and would do anything he could to help him.
 
“Clinton kept his word from that day forward,” Zeigler said.
 
That day, and that conversation, marked a milestone in Zeigler’s life. Not only had the courts been restored, but Zeigler, emboldened by Johnson’s support, was ready to take on a leadership role in the community.
 
Johnson connected him with Partnerships for Parks, which Johnson says has helped “tremendously” in working with Zeigler to organize park cleanups and youth events. Zeigler is planning to raise money for an extension of the G.Y.M. Project called Get Fit, which will bring young children and their parents to the park to exercise and learn about nutrition, and eventually be extended to local public schools.
 
News about Zeigler’s work reached Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., who nominated Zeigler for Bronx Community Board 9, which Zeigler joined last November.
 
“A lot of people want change, but they don’t always know how to help,” he said. “Now I’m part of that change. It’s a blessing.”
 
He hopes to eventually take his anti-obesity work to other neighborhoods.
 
“Any place where kids can be active – that’s where I want to be,” he said. “When I grew up, the worst punishment was ‘you can’t go outside.’ When that happened, I knew it was for real. Now it’s ‘you have to go outside.’ That makes me think something needs to change.”
 
But his primary focus, at least for now, remains the basketball courts, which he says need a complete resurfacing. He’s raising money for that, and, like much of Zeigler’s work, it will likely be a group effort.
 
That’s fitting. After all, the true strength of Zeigler’s community work is drawn from the connections he made over all those years in the park, on the courts. That’s why he kept going back. That’s how he raised money so quickly last summer. That’s why so many friends have done whatever they can to help him over the past year.
 
“There’s no more trash around the court, no more graffiti,” he said. “I wanted people to take ownership, and they have. They know they’ve had a hand in fixing something that they can call their own. When the court is finished, I will sit back, cross my legs and say not ‘look at what I did,’ but ‘look at what we did.’”

To watch a short video about Zeigler's work, click here.




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