August 11, Wednesday evening, around town and at the playing field. “Coaching the corner,” Zack Lehman’s wife calls his habit of cruising the streets of Charlestown in his Nissan Pathfinder, looking for boys who have missed practice, and making sure they’re not getting into trouble.
It’s off-season now for Charlestown Lacrosse, which Lehman ’98, a law clerk for Chief Judge William Young ’67 of Boston’s federal court and soon-to-be litigation associate at Ropes & Gray, founded here a year ago. Lehman serves the program in every conceivable capacity — from head coach and grant writer to board chair and equipment repairman. Tonight he is giving a Bulletin writer an early evening tour of Charlestown, beginning with the neighborhoods where most of the players — some 200 boys and girls ages 8 to 18 — live.
“Hey, when are you going to bring your equipment by?” Lehman calls to a group of teenage boys hanging out in front of a two-story brick housing development, its open entry ways revealing institution green, littered stairwells. Some of them have attended summer lacrosse camps sponsored by the program and been allowed to keep their gear past the regular “turn-in day.” The boys, their faces barely visible beneath their baseball caps, wave and shout their good intentions.
Charlestown covers a mere square mile and has more public housing per square foot than any other Massachusetts city, Lehman says as we drive the few blocks to the more prosperous section. The predominantly Irish working people who have lived here for generations are said to sometimes cast a suspicious eye on well-to-do newcomers occupying pricey homes near the Bunker Hill Monument.
Zack Lehman, with his Phillips Exeter– Dartmouth–Harvard Law pedigree, could be another suspect outsider — a “toonie” in the local lexicon. But by all indications, that’s not the case.
Lehman and his wife bought a townhouse on a modest Charlestown street two years ago when he was a 3L. His next-door neighbor, Stan Leonard, a local policeman, spotted Lehman’s Dartmouth lacrosse jacket — Lehman played goalie in high school and college — and kept after him until Lehman agreed to help start a lacrosse program for the city’s kids. Leonard’s interest in lacrosse was sparked by his daughter, now a college player, who learned the sport while a scholarship student at a Cambridge private school.
“The idea wasn’t just to introduce a sport that has usually been conned to more affluent communities,” says Lehman. “It was also to provide a structured alternative to drugs and gangs, and to help kids who are largely from the projects develop discipline and confidence.”
The idea took. The program has grown from 25 neophyte teenagers the first year to nearly 200 well-trained players on six teams, the varsity playing elite prep schools, and the younger teams competing against other local teams. Charlestown Lacrosse has 35 volunteer male and female coaches recruited by Lehman, a packed season, and top-flight equipment underwritten by corporate sponsors, who also help send a number of kids to summer lacrosse camps. (Among the program’s many supporters is Hale and Dorr, which provides pro bono legal services.) “As great as it is for the kids and their families, the program is just as great for the coaches and other volunteers,” says Lehman. “For me, being part of a community for the first time has made it all worthwhile.”
We’ve left the cobblestone streets and million-dollar homes for Charlestown’s only regulation-size playing field, surrounded by the high school, two housing developments, the Tobin Bridge connecting Charlestown and neighboring cities, and a cement works, the steady drone of its five silos competing with the roar of bridge traffic. As usual on summer nights, the geld and the track around it are occupied — with joggers and dog-walkers, kids tossing footballs and baseballs and playing hockey, and the Pop Warner Football cheerleaders practicing their latest moves.
While Astroturf may be in the future, for now there’s patchy grass. At least the treacherous rocks and glass are gone, thanks to Charlestown Lacrosse’s advocacy. “It’s a wake-up call when a prep school comes to play here,” says Lehman. “They’re used to lush playing fields. We give them this, plus we usually beat them.” Last year the varsity boys won 14 out of 19 games, a big jump from their first season when they won a third of their games.
Lehman is a familiar face, and among those who greet him is the mother of the star player on the girls team. Lehman later says the coaching staff emphasizes that the girls are not “second fiddle” to the boys, that in the next few years, there will be a girls varsity team. The program currently has two all-girls teams, one for 13- and 14-year-olds, the other for 11- and 12-
Adam, a mid-fielder on the boys varsity team, strolls over, football in hand. He’s an honor roll student at Charlestown High, and he tells Lehman his Spanish grade went from C to B with help from a tutor at Charlestown Lacrosse’s Learning Center. Adam spots his girlfriend, and he’s off. Not all of the kids are doing as well as Adam, says Lehman. Some are performing poorly in school or using drugs, or have gotten into skirmishes with the law.
While the teenage boys are the most trouble-prone, “All the kids are at risk,” Lehman says, explaining that the Learning Center is a central feature of Charlestown Lacrosse’s efforts to keep them on the right track. “We want the kids to be good lacrosse players, good students, and good citizens. Lacrosse is our hook, but the center is just as important as the program’s recreational component.”
A one-room schoolhouse in a former storage facility, the center opened across from the field in April. Kids get tutoring here, from volunteers recruited by Lehman and other board members, and do community service under the center’s aegis. This spring they took it upon themselves to clean up the city’s infamous “Montego Bay,” an overgrown, trash-strewn drinking haven overlooking the Mystic River just beyond the field. Thanks to a grant, the center is expanding and will soon offer writing workshops, mentoring programs, and standardized test preparation.
Lehman begins at Ropes & Gray in November, and while he expects to cut back from the 20–25 hours a week he devotes to Charlestown Lacrosse during spring playing season, he’s happy that the firm’s hiring partner, Ken Erickson ’75, roots for program. “Ken said it’s OK if I sometimes need to leave early for a practice.”