At the Miccio Community Center on the evening of February 8, Sara Gonzalez and the Red Hook Lions Club hosted a meet and greet between neighborhood kids and three successful Brooklyn natives.
Gonzalez formerly represented District 38 in the New York City Council, which includes Red Hook. The three featured guests were former professional baseball player and current coach Chris Garcia, current NYPD officer and actor on the hit Fox show Gotham JW Cortes, and former recording artist and founder of Wallball World Jasmine Ray.
The guests and hosts had time to talk and introduce themselves before about 20 kids from Miccio’s afterschool program arrived in the gym at about 6:45 pm.
“Youth is the future,” Gonzalez said before the event began. “I am very proud of JW, I am very proud of Chris, I am very proud of Jasmine. These people have done so many wonderful things in their lives, that is why I wanted the kids to show up.”
Andrea McKnight introduced Cortes as an individual who plays Detective Alvarez on Gotham on Channel 5. “He came to see you and some of the kids in the community,” McKnight said. “He came to let you know that there is something else to look forward to.”
Garcia, who has been a professional baseball player, gave words of wisdom to the kids first because he had to leave early to coach kids in baseball elsewhere in Brooklyn.
He started out by enthusiastically asking the kids who wanted to be a baseball player. When a few raised their hands, he told them that it was a worthy challenge.
“It is not easy to be a baseball player,” said Garcia, who was born in Bensonhurst but grew up in Sunset Park. “You have got to put in hard work. Stay away from the streets, start training, do a lot of running, do a lot of weights, stop playing basketball, stop playing manhunt and stop playing all these crazy games in the streets.”
Garcia then took pictures and signed autographs for the kids, who really enjoyed meeting a former professional baseball player.
Garcia, who went to Xaverian High in Brooklyn, was drafted in the 15th round by the Los Angeles Angels in 2007, and played in the minor league organizations for them, the Braves, and the Mets. He also played in an independent league.
He now coaches baseball for kids who are seven to sixteen.
JW Cortes, who plays Detective Carlos Alvarez on Gotham, was next to introduce himself to the kids. He explained that Alvarez is a comic book character and that he is the first human to play him. He also added that the kids should always believe since he grew up in Brooklyn as well.
“As the first human to play him, I get to bring him to life to the show Gotham as a member of the GCPD,” Cortes said. “What I want you guys to know in this gym is that I am from Brooklyn. I want you guys to know that because if I made it to the TV show Gotham and I am originally from Brooklyn, what does that mean for you guys?”
His main message to the kids was that they can achieve anything to which they aspire. He told the kids that he would answer any questions that the kids had about acting or the show and would sign autographs on his picture that he brought.
He really wanted the kids to have a chance to get close to him and not be shy about getting a picture. “We can take a thousand pictures, that is what I am here for.”
Cortes grew on 49th Street in Sunset Park when it was known as Little Vietnam. He said the crack and AIDS epidemics destroyed the neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s, but he is happy there are presently more opportunities.
Cortes, whose passion for acting began at Lafayette High in Bensonhurst, was in the Marine Corps for 13 years. He said knew he wanted to pursue his love for acting when he was in Iraq in 2003. and decided that when he got back from the war he would not give up on his acting and singing dreams.
In addition to being on Gotham, he is also a police officer in the Port Authority and Grand Central Station, “which really confuses my fans because they will see me in uniform and they are not sure if I am filming an episode of Gotham or not.”
Rey then introduced herself to the kids and briefly told them about the opportunities that they can have playing handball with the United States Wallball Association.
“You can play handball right here down the block,” Rey said. “There are so many handball courts in New York City. When you play in my tournaments, now you have an opportunity to fly out of the country to play handball. Isn’t that nice? We have been all over the place. We have been to Italy, to Colombia, to China.”
She started out as a singer and was on tour for five years. She was happy to share that one of her songs went No. 1 on Z100 back in 2006.
Rey started her handball organization for kids back in 2010 the year after her brother, who loved handball, passed away.
“I did this in his memory,” Rey said. “I couldn’t sing anymore. Who could sing after that?”
After telling the kids the opportunities they had through handball, Rey then threw handballs that she brought to the kids in the afterschool program.
The kids enjoyed playing handball against the wall of the gym led by Rey. Trequan Bekka, the head of the after school program, also participated. Rey interacted with the kids and gave them pointers.
In addition to starting Wallball World because of her brother, she thought there was a need for it since so many kids play handball. She first started it as an LLC (for-profit company) but when she realized that people don’t really donate to for profits she created a non-profit.
“Once the kids saw that we were having free tournaments and free events where they could just come and be safe and have some recreation and walk away with a t-shirt or a ball, little by little we went from 50 kids, to 100 kids, to now we have 2,000 kids in the five boroughs,” Rey said.
They have taken teenagers who have excelled to tournaments in Colombia, Italy, Ireland and soon, Scotland. They also have two local tournaments a month.
The only thing kids need to participate is a waiver signed by their parents saying that they can play. Other than that, everything from membership, to the tournaments, to the food that they provide, to the handballs, to the t-shirts is free.
Rey first came in contact with Gonzalez after her uncle passed away in an accident about 10 years ago. Gonzalez was a councilwoman and at that time she did a street renaming for Rey’s uncle in Sunset Park. That was the first time that she met her.
“After that, she saw the work that we were doing in the community, and once she left the council she said she wanted to continue helping us spread the word and get some more work in Sunset Park,” Rey said. “A lot of kids come from Sunset and I am from Sunset.”
Later on, Rey spoke about how she wants to make a difference in the community with handball and help the kids that are growing up now.
“We are here to inspire the youth,” Rey added. “We are inspired just to help the community in general. It is our responsibility to give back at the end of the day. We came from this neighborhood. It is our responsibility to inspire the next generation.”
The three guests left an impression on the kids, who were excited to get pictures with and meet the people who were on the meet and greet flyer.