For the Martin sisters, Katie and Sarah, CAAEL and its kids-at-risk mission always have been a family affair.
By Mark Vruno
Research indicates that extracurricular activities encourage peer interaction, promote cooperation, build student-adult relationships and help strengthen the student-school connection, points out Fenwick alumna Sarah Lorenzi ’97 (née Martin). “Students who participate in these activities achieve higher grade point averages, miss fewer days of school and are more likely to graduate,” she adds.
However, each year thousands of Illinois’ students — those excluded from the educational mainstream — are unable to participate in these types of experiences. “And that’s where CAAEL comes in,” explains Ms. Lorenzi.
Lorenzi is president of the Chicago Area Alternative Education League (CAAEL), an organization that provides and governs interscholastic activities for at-risk and special-education students. Annually throughout the eight-county Chicago metropolitan area, CAAEL gives more than 5,000 students access to extracurricular activities they otherwise would not have. “We sponsor a variety of events year ’round: academic bowls, spelling bees, chess, bowling, basketball, flag football, volleyball, soccer, softball, art, badminton and high ropes courses — 1,000 events each year,” she notes.
“CAAEL is unique in that it does not run after-school programs. All activities are directly integrated into each school’s educational curriculum and schedule, with competitions taking place during the school day,” Lorenzi adds.
CAAEL’s participants often share one or more of the following 10 characteristics. For example, they may be:
- emotionally disturbed
- learning disabled
- behaviorally challenging
- socially isolated
- gang involved
- drug dependent
“That’s the magic of CAAEL,” she quickly adds. “Our students come in all different shapes and sizes — different races, different socio-economic backgrounds, different disabilities and abilities. Yet they come together each week and interact beautifully.”
The wide range of students CAAEL successfully serves truly defies the norm. As a result, CAAEL kids can learn to see beyond themselves. They develop empathy. They learn to embrace diversity. “As different as our kids are, they have this in common: They deserve to have fun,” insists their leader. “They must be seen and valued. CAAEL is the only organization providing this broad scope programming for Illinois’ growing number of high-risk youth.”
A mother of three children of her own, Lorenzi grew up playing softball in Forest Park, went to Fenwick and Northern Illinois University (B.A. and M.Ed.), then taught at Longfellow Elementary (Oak Park) before making the leap of faith in five years ago to help her father, CAAEL founder John Martin.
Humble, heartfelt beginnings
“My Dad started CAAEL in 1976,” Sarah recalls. I grew up witnessing the amazing impact CAAEL had on an ever-expanding number of at-risk and special- education students.”
It all began when he was teaching in an alternative school for kids with severe behavioral challenges, remembers Fenwick faculty and Dominican Laity member Dr. Jerry Lordan, O.P.
“Sarah’s father was a high school physical education teacher and coach [at the Stone Park Education Center]. From time to time he would have kids with disabilities transfer into and out from his classes. He could see their desire to participate in sports curtailed by their assignment to alternative-education schools without extracurricular activity programs,” Dr. Lordan explains.
“Rather than whine and moan, ‘Somebody ought to do something!’ he decided to be the change he wanted to see. John started the CAAEL,” Lordan continues. “At first it was just sports like basketball and baseball, which are played indoors. Then they added baseball, softball and track. Then they added poetry slams, spelling bees, art shows, musical performances, dances, etc.” Lordan notes that the Kiwanis Club of Forest Park is a financial sponsor to the CAAEL Coed Softball Tournament held in June in Forest Park.
Initially, Mr./Coach Martin recognized the value of playing basketball, according to his eldest daughter. “By making the focus sportsmanship and teamwork rather than winning … and by having his students earn the right to play each week, he saw his students’ motivation grow, their attendance and grades get better and their behavior improve,” Lorenzi says. In the mid- to late ’70s, “there was nothing like it available, and the typical thought was that these kinds of kids just didn’t have the ability or self-control to keep it together during a competitive team sport. But my Dad knew in his heart that, given the right opportunities, these kids could do anything. So he found three other alternative schools and began a small, four-team basketball league. And it worked.”
For 38 years, Martin ran CAAEL, by himself, based on his two-pronged philosophy:
- You couldteach kids and adults that sportsmanship is more important than winning.
- Tough-to-reach kids would and could meet eligibility criteria to participate.
As the lone employee, he managed a growing network of schools, ran the business side of CAAEL and developed new events to engage more kids. “He never reached out to find more schools, yet the network grew,” Lorenzi says. “New schools joined because educators told other educators about this amazing program that was successfully engaging difficult-to-reach kids.
“In 2014 I was struck by the certainty that I belonged at my Dad’s side. I needed to help him continue growing CAAEL and ensure the stability of CAAEL’s powerful programs far in to the future,” she says. “So I left my teaching career in Oak Park after 13 years and began splitting his modest salary.
“I worked with my Dad for three years,” Sarah shares. “He passed away in 2017. What he accomplished single-handedly is incredible and I’m so proud to build upon this amazing legacy.”
Fellow Friar connections
This past September, younger sister and fellow Friar alumnae Katie (Martin) Trendel ’00 joined Sarah at CAAEL as Program Coordinator/Administrative Assistant, following a 10-year stint as the Sports and Teen Director at Pav YMCA in Berwyn. With a master’s degree in Human Services-Exercise, Ms. Trendel began volunteering as an eight-year-old working in CAAEL’s Annual Basketball Tournament’s concession stand. For the last 15 years she has managed all functions of the tourney’s registration process. Katie is the mother of two girls (in grade school) and, like her older sister, she is committed to serving and expanding the CAAEL network.
Jabari Harris ’99, another Friar and friend of the Martin sisters, was a basketball coach for CAAEL until he moved out of state last year. The 6’9” Harris, who played basketball for Fenwick and UIC, also taught physical education at Joseph Academy. (The Melrose Park school serves the needs of young people with severe behavioral, emotional and learning disabilities.)
- VIDEO: What CAAEL means to Coach Jabari Harris.
- Read more about John Martin’s CAAEL legacy.
- VIEW HIS TRIBUTE VIDEO.