By Pete Reinwald
School of Public Service
LaVont’e Stewart recalls with clarity the terrifying moment he found his vision.
It was summer 2008 in Chicago’s South Shore community. Stewart had gathered players from the youth baseball team that he coached, the South Shore Yankees, to give them news that he could barely bring himself to deliver: Their league was ending.
He was giving them ideas of other places they could play when gunfire rang out.
Stewart hit the dirt.
Yet his players did nothing. From his spot on the ground, Stewart looked up and saw
his players still standing, unaffected, even laughing.
“They were desensitized to the violence happening in front of them,” Stewart said.
“I’m like, ‘Wow, these kids are really lost, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.’”
Almost immediately, Stewart saw Lost Boyz Inc.
Stewart, a 2015 graduate of DePaul University’s School of Public Service who works as a staff member for State Senator Kwame Raoul, started his 501 3(C) nonprofit organization later in 2008 as a tool for mentoring and intervention in South Shore.
Stewart would use baseball, a sport he loved and grew up on, to keep kids out of trouble and to give them guidance, social perspective and understanding.
Lost Boyz? It wasn’t so much that the boys were lost, he says.
“A lot of people think the name is negative,” Stewart said. “I’m like, ‘It’s not a reflection on the kids themselves.’ It’s for shock value.”
And it was for self-reflection.
“What have I done for the community?” Stewart said he would ask himself. “These
kids needed some advocates, some people to just stand with them. My favorite phrase is that I’m the chief Lost Boy.”
Today Lost Boyz serves about 120 boys and girls 17 and under through, as Stewart puts it, recreation, education and cultivation. In addition to baseball and softball, the program includes camping, hiking and kayaking trips, plus tutoring services and visits to Chicago area museums and community centers that
stress cultural diversity.
Lost Boyz also emphasizes community service such as tree planting and park clean-ups that reinforce giving back and connectedness.
The program maintains a retention rate of about 90 percent, Stewart says.
When kids finish the program, he says, the organization looks to hire them as umpires and coaches and other in roles. Lost Boyz also offers services for young adults 24 and under.
Stewart says his organization involves about 40 volunteers who coach, guide and
help on administrative matters such as grant writing, social media and marketing.
Lost Boyz also includes six part-time staff members and a budget that, through donations, grants and sponsorships, continues to grow. Stewart says he aims this coming year to almost triple his budget from the current $50,000.
Sam Shipko, a student at DePaul’s Driehaus College of Business who works as a tutor at
Lost Boyz, calls Stewart a “game-changer.”
You know that’s true from watching the kids, he says.
“You can see in their eyes how much they respect him, and everyone appears to be a
‘changed’ person after coming into contact with LaVont’e,” Shipko wrote in an email
response to questions. “This is no coincidence, as it is obvious LaVont’e wants everyone to achieve their goals — whether that is making the high school baseball team, honor roll, or getting into a four-year college or university.”
Stewart’s journey involves a lost period of his own life and a segment of academic and
professional enrichment at DePaul’s School of Public Service.
A product of the South Shore community, Stewart says he grew up well off compared
with his peers. He had a stable family and parents who earned decent incomes.
He was a good baseball and football player. He was smart and privileged — and he got
flak about it from fellow teens, who would pressure him into dangerous distractions.
This happened during the early 1990s when Stewart said gangs underwent a behavioral shift. Before that period, he said, gangs wouldn’t pressure athletes into
“If you were an athlete, you would get a pass,” he said. “Then we hit this point in ‘90, ’91, and all that started changing. They started becoming aggressive. I began moving away from my norms, my mores. I kind of started changing my behavior to fit in.”
Stewart referred to it as self-preservation. He says he began associating with local gangs, including activities and violence associated with them.
His mother, Wanda Dillon- Stewart, described the younger LaVont’e as a leader who showed a propensity to teach. “He always tried to help,” she said, “and he’d get in trouble himself” from helping.
Yet LaVont’e would attend Hampton University to play football. He transferred to
Missouri Valley College, where he intended to play baseball but never did: A weapon related conviction landed him in prison, he says.
He later returned to school and earned a degree in computer science from Chicago State University, in 2004.
Even by the time he started Lost Boyz, he says, he remained “rough around the edges.” His new organization inspired him to be careful about drinking out of
concern that he might encounter a parent of one of his young baseball players.
“It helped me to settle down and figure out who I was becoming,” he said.
In 2013, Stewart enrolled in the School of Public Service with the idea of sharpening his knowledge and skills in government. Yet he says he quickly found his studies relevant to Lost Boyz.
Stewart says he applied virtually every part of his School of Public Service experience to his organization. In one of his classes, he did a presentation on the organization’s annual report. For his degree in Public Administration, he did his capstone project on Lost Boyz and its operational model.
Along the way, he asked questions. He engaged professors and fellow students, some of whom would become involved in Lost Boyz.
In his Economic Foundations course, School of Public Service associate professor Martin Luby said Stewart’s work at Lost Boyz and as associate district director for State Senator Raoul “elevated a lot of discussions past textbooks.”
“His experience in that arena and his strength as a student made the classroom a rich, dynamic environment,” Luby said. “Given his personal experience and the challenges, the fact that he’s given back the way he has is really compelling and inspirational. He really embodies the spirit of SPS.”
Stewart extended that spirit to the Pi Alpha Alpha honor society, which aims to recognize the scholarly pursuits of public service students and alumni. He served as
vice president of DePaul’s chapter.
Of his School of Public Service experience, Stewart said: “These were some of the best people that I’ve ever spent two years of my life with. I flourished in that environment. It was a catalyst for where the organization is now and for putting it on track for farther down the road.”
Jesse McClain, a 2015 School of Public Service graduate, said Stewart usually found a way to make Lost Boyz a focus of course projects, regardless of whether for fundraising, human resources or strategic planning.
McClain said he did so many projects with Stewart that he ended up using Lost Boyz as the subject of his own capstone project, on fundraising.
“He was so passionate about it,” McClain said about Stewart and Lost Boyz. “I think everybody was happy to do a group (project) with him because you would see real
McClain, who now works at the University of California at Berkeley, said he served as
communications chair as part of two years at Lost Boyz. Stewart “has a way of bring people into the fold,” he said.
“He can tell the story of Lost Boyz in a compelling way,” McClain said. “He tells it in a way that makes you go ‘Wow.’ We hear all these awful things, but there is this really bright spot of hope that LaVont’e leads. As a Chicagoan, you feel that this is a way of
Stewart also gets government and public service leaders and athletes involved.
Lost Boyz staff member Shipko recently organized an Illinois State Police presentation
for the organization: Trooper Woodrow Montgomery shared his experience as a child from a single-parent home in the South Shore community. Montgomery emphasized academic achievement, athletic participation, extra-curricular activity and community service.
“Lavont’e seems to instill basic life values into the kids such as respect and hard work,” Montgomery wrote in an email. “The African-American community needs more charitable role models like Lavont’e. He is making it possible for these kids raised in harsh conditions to have limitless potential.”
At age 41, Stewart keeps his vision intact. As he works to change lives, he continues to
learn from his own work and experiences.
He more clearly sees the importance of funding relationships, for example. Donors
tend to influence each other through their funding activities, he says. In that way, smaller donors can lead to larger ones.
He says he also has learned that in order to become stable, an organization requires a permanent staff. Organizations that rely solely on volunteers tend to experience
extremely high turnover rates.
“We want to position ourselves to build a staff,” Stewart said. In the meantime, he says, “we’re trying to do more with less. We’re very programmatic and deliberate
with how we use our funds.”
He exudes patience. Not long ago, he says, he realized that he’d be spending the rest of his life with Lost Boyz.
“Besides the birth of my children, I would say this is my second wave of saving grace,” said Stewart, a father of three. “I don’t look at this as work. I look it as my ministry.”