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Gulf Coast Community Foundation Upholds Academic Enrichment for Students

A retired, professional baseball player and businessman are making a difference in Newtown one child at a time.

Presented by Gulf Coast Community Foundation December 20, 2022

Retired, professional baseball player Ian Desmond and retired businessman Vince Northfield, co-founders of Newtown Connection.

A retired, professional athlete and a retired, successful businessman are doing something amazing in the Newtown community and we want you to know about it. In November, Gulf Coast Community Foundation awarded a $10,000 grant to Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota and Desoto Counties, Inc. (BGCSDC). The grant is made possible through the Gould Family Trust Foundation and is being used for Newtown Connection. Mr. Alvin Gould loved supporting students, and he valued education as a path to students achieving their dreams. The grant will make it possible for Newtown Connection to purchase Amazon Fire electronic tablets for students to complete their homework after school. The tablets are used during academic enrichment time to promote grade-level reading and mathematics.

Vince Northfield and Ian Desmond are the co-founders of Newtown Connection which is a program of the Boys & Girls Club’s Newtown Estates Park Club that includes academic enrichment, physical activity, and health education for 120 students. It operates as an after-school and summer program for underserved youth, ages 6-12, free of charge. Newtown Connection has established a formal partnership with BGCSDC to ensure the stability and sustainability of the program. Newtown Connection’s aspiration was to develop a successful model program that can be easily replicated by athletes in the future.

Desmond is a lifelong Sarasota community activist who played major league baseball for the Washington Nationals, Texas Rangers, and Colorado Rockies. He is a three-time Silver Slugger award winner who appeared in 1,478 games at six different positions. He was also a board member of the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy from 2013-2015. Northfield is a dual citizen of the United States and the United Kingdom. He is a retired business executive spanning a variety of industries around the world. He mentors aspiring entrepreneurs and enjoys golfing and exercising. The duo hopes to help our local youth thrive as they participate in physical activity coupled with academic enrichment. This powerful combination will help students to experience positive adult and peer relationships that instill structure and build confidence and competence. The goal of the program is to supplement the student’s school day to ensure they are achieving grade-level benchmarks and attaining on-time grade advancement.

“Vince’s commitment to this organization is admirable. He tattooed the Newtown Connection logo on his arm! Students enjoy wearing their temporary tattoos of the logo,” said Jennifer Johnston, Director of Community Leadership for Gulf Coast Community Foundation. “I hope seeing these role models in action with the students will expand collaborative programming in our region.”

For Tomorrow Today

Ian Desmond talks with students from the Newtown Connection program.

Newtown Connection’s mission is to create a level playing field – providing kids of all backgrounds a safe place to learn the skills, confidence, and determination of baseball and for life. Newtown Connection aims to use baseball as a vehicle to mentor the next generation of community leaders who embody the values of inclusivity, open-mindedness, and the importance of giving back. Academically, the program supports the BGCSDC staff and teachers to help the students with their homework, reading, and assisting them with their Florida Standards Assessments. In addition, they partner with Regions Bank to provide financial literacy classes that help the kids understand the value of managing a budget.

Volunteers from Sarasota Military Academy (SMA) are students who need volunteer hours and want to inspire their younger peers. They come to Newtown Connection to teach the students character and sportsmanship, and they mentor the students. Coaches from Sarasota Military Academy also help the students with their homework. The Newtown Connection team took trauma training to understand how the brain works and how to work with kids. Anyone involved with the program must go through these trainings.

Transforming Together

Students in the Newtown Connection program learn important skills in sports and life.

We sat down with Desmond and Northfield at Newtown Estates Park to find out more.

Q: What inspired you to create Newtown Connection?

Desmond: “This all was born out of emotions running high from COVID and social justice issues. I had spent my whole career as a baseball player giving back to everyone else’s communities. When I stopped playing baseball, I decided it was time to put my focus here in Sarasota. I’ve always had a team around me in the past cheering me on. There was always someone to support me. I got back home to Sarasota and needed help with this. I went to Vince who is my neighbor, friend, and someone I look up to. I said I’m thinking about this idea and from that moment forward, we’ve been on this journey.”

Northfield: “When I was working, I was completely driven around working. I could invest financially in philanthropy, but I was never involved. When Ian asked me about this, it sparked an interest. Ian asked me how we can run this program like a business. We realized if we can make it really well organized and hold ourselves accountable, we may be able to drive success here. We listen to people and understand what their needs are and provide that need.”

Q: How do you feel you are making a difference in the children’s lives?

Northfield: “It’s hard to measure statistics on smiles, but when these kids are having problems and then come to our fields and have fun, learn discipline, manners, and coordination – that is the true reward. The return on investment is that happy kids want to learn and use the equipment. We are giving them things they don’t have at home, including the opportunity of equality in sports and education.”

Desmond: “For me, my evaluation comes from being a dad. When I see these kids interacting and opening up to me, I know they are comfortable in that moment to talk to me. I can have open conversations with the students on the best parts of their day and the worst parts. They really open up to me with an honest, genuine answer. That’s how I know we are making a difference.”

Q: What motivates you to do this every day?

Northfield: “The smiles on the kid’s faces and knowing we are giving them a chance. I’m a realist. We won’t see the effects of this for five to 10 years. The teachers are telling us that kids who have learning disabilities are doing well. It makes you feel like what you’re doing is worth it. I’ve used my business acumen to make a model that could get replicated multiple times over. Other athletes can come along and utilize the free model. We are looking forward, not just doing this in the short term. A former player for the Toronto Blue Jays approached us. This has now transformed into St. Pete Connection. There are at least 100 kids in that program.”

Desmond: “Any player or person can come and ask how we have done this. We can tell you how we started from day one and how we are still doing this today. Everything is mapped out. Both of us are extremely determined people. We have a passion and a drive to see this through. We have both shown that in this no-quit atmosphere. We have a love for the kids and instill determination and perseverance in them. Vince and I were both these kids at one time in our pasts. I’ve learned about trauma-informed care and this made me realize how rhythmic, repetitive behaviors as therapy play such an important role in my career and in these children’s lives.”

Students from the Newtown Connection program smile.

Next up? Desmond and Northfield are looking for partners to help educate the students, including those in the medical field. Over the last two years, Newtown Connection has inspired and transformed lives. Gulf Coast Community Foundation is honored to support this critical organization.

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