By Jody Steinberg

Julie Koriakin isn’t the only one hailing the match between DeKalb County schools and the YMCA of Metro Atlanta as “the perfect marriage.”

The executive director of the Cowart Family Ashford-Dunwoody Y is talking about a lease agreement that allows the Y to serve the community along Buford Highway, while helping Cross Keys High School improve its fields and increase students’ community involvement.

On July 12 — more than a year after Cross Keys Foundation president Kim Gokce floated the idea of a partnership between the Y and Cross Keys – the DeKalb County School Board approved a five-year lease to “rent” the Cross Keys athletic facilities to the Y, which will offer youth sports programs on the Cross Keys fields when they are not being used for school activities.

As payment, the Y has committed to improve, maintain and secure the run-down fields, where grass is patchy at best, and muddy at worst.

Nevertheless, Cross Keys athletes play on, students in ROTC march along, and many uninvited neighbors use the fields after hours. While the cash-strapped DeKalb school system has allowed such conditions to persist, the Y considers them inadequate.

“The more Kim told me about it, the more I realized there is a great opportunity for the Y to work with the school district. It’s why the partnership is so perfect,” Koriakin said. “The athletes get a new field that’s consistent with their school renovations, and the Y gets to offer programs to an underserved community.”

The Ashford-Dunwoody Y currently serves about 13,000 members, few of whom hail from the Buford Highway corridor, a community the Y has targeted to serve for some time, said communications director Kristen Obaranec.

Since transportation has been a roadblock, bringing programming into the community is a win-win, she said. “We want to be a good neighbor and meet the needs of the community,” she said. “We are all about youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.”

The Y wants kids to benefit from outdoor activity and learn athletic skills as well as valuable lessons about sportsmanship, discipline and teamwork, she said.

“The schools need every dollar to go into academic and extracurricular activities. We can do more together than we can do individually. It’s a great opportunity and everyone benefits from it – especially the community.”

In the first phase, which should be under way soon, the Y will pay to grade, irrigate, reseed and re-sod the main field inside the track, replace fencing, add a water meter, maintain the fields and provide security staff during events. In total, the Y expects to invest about $19,000 in field improvements before it launches its first program – a late-start soccer program for children 4-13.

A five-year, $178,000 plan includes restriping and eventually resurfacing the track, improving the baseball field, constructing a building for storage and concessions, sports and bleacher equipment, a new marquee and bathrooms near the fields for Cross Keys. It does not include the cost of the Y’s programming and security staff. While soccer is the first program, Y leaders foresee a broader offering of programs, including some that will involve the school and the community jointly.

“It’s a significant investment,” Kioriakin says. “This puts us in a position to offer our programming and to bring everyone together and support the school and their athletes.”

The nonprofit Y relies on volunteers, donors, grants and program fees to achieve its mission. Koriakin hopes that the renewed interest in Cross Keys will motivate neighbors to volunteer as coaches, get involved with the Cross Keys Foundation, and support the program with donations.

While one or two large donors or grants would be a nice way to finance the program, small donations from the community add up, she says. The Y has a scholarship fund to assure that anyone in the community can participate in its programs. The cost to sponsor one child for a season of soccer: $130.

“This is a step in the next direction – it will give students the chance to be part of the change,” adds Cross Keys principal Dr. LaShawn McMillan, who supported the idea from the beginning. She and Koriakin both envision Cross Keys students volunteering as coaches and mentors and experiencing the benefits of giving back to the community. One student has already been hired to help with the program.

With so much work needed to prepare the fields, the Y’s first season at Cross Keys will start a bit later than other locations. The goal is to enroll 150 children and families, but Koriakin is not focusing on the numbers.

“No matter how many children start, we’re in it for the long haul,” she explains. “Small seeds get planted and wonderful things grow.”