DETROIT -- Clark Park has been a sports haven for thousands of children in Detroit for more than 120 years. But if it wasn't for Anthony Benavides, the historic park in the heart of southwest Detroit would've been shut down 30 years ago.
Benavides is a founding member of the Clark Park Coalition, which was established to re-open the park when the city of Detroit attempted to close it in 1991, and because of his tireless efforts to provide recreational programming for community youth, the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers and Comerica Bank have named Benavides the first Game Changers honoree of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Benavides, who was born and raised in Detroit and is a graduate of Wayne State University, was a frequent visitor to Clark Park in his youth, so when he heard it was scheduled to be closed in the early 90s, he knew he couldn't let it get shut down.
"The park has always been a go-to since I was a kid," Benavides said. "I grew up in the neighborhood, two blocks away, so when I was a child, even a teenager, I always went to Clark Park. They had a hockey program there and baseball and basketball, so there were always things to do. It was always a go-to for all of us in this area.
"In 1991, the city was going through some rough times and things were closing, including the park. So we all formed the coalition to keep the park going. And so we all came together and volunteered our time and resources to keep it open."
Under Benavides' leadership as director of the Clark Park Recreation Center, the park has become a year-round hub of recreation and youth development, serving over 1,200 youth annually through baseball, softball, soccer, tennis, ice hockey, ice skating and lacrosse as well as educational, arts and youth employment programs. It also boasts the only public outdoor hockey rink in Detroit.
As a member of the Hispanic community, Benavides said it's important for him to be a leader in the city, to provide representation to young Hispanic people to show they can achieve success.
"It's extremely important so they can be the next leaders," Benavides said. "We want our kids to stay in the neighborhood and keep coming back. Our neighborhood is growing, and Detroit is headed in the right direction. They see a Hispanic person in place, and they would like to continue that legacy, because you need representation, you need people to look up to. It's a growing population, so we need Hispanic leadership at all levels."
Because of his longtime commitment to the city and to his Hispanic heritage, Benavides has already been honored with the Detroit Lions Hispanic Leadership Award and with the Detroit Pistons Game Changer Award. And now, Benavides has made a clean sweep of Detroit professional sports teams, being celebrated by the Red Wings and Tigers.
"We're honored to join Comerica Bank in celebrating Anthony Benavides as a 2021 Game Changers recipient," said Red Wings and Tigers director of community impact Kevin Brown. "Living just steps from Clark Park, Anthony's dynamic passion for building generational impact through connectivity to sport within our Hispanic community shines through in everything he does."
Video: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month
Benavides said he's thrilled to be named the first Game Changers honoree of Hispanic Heritage month, and said because of the park's longtime partnership with the Ilitch family, the Game Changers nomination is a full-circle moment.
"It's really an honor that they gave me this award, so I'm really happy," Benavides said. "Both organizations have been very helpful. The Ilitch family has been very helpful for us at Clark Park, whether it's the hockey program or the baseball program, and we're looking forward to many more years of partnership with them."
After the Red Wings and Tigers honored Game Changers in metro Detroit for Black History Month, Pride Month and Disability Pride Month, Benavides said he's proud that his hometown organizations are celebrating Hispanic leaders in the community as well.
"I think it's great that they pay attention and they're honoring people of color and especially with Hispanic Heritage Month," he said. "And I think it's fabulous that they're interested in our neighborhood and our park and our people's health. I think it's a great thing."
As Benavides mentioned, the partnership between the Red Wings, Tigers and Clark Park has been longstanding, including a $15,000 donation by the Detroit Red Wings Foundation to renovate the park in August 2019. The Red Wings and partner Labatt Blue combined to volunteer 300 hours to keep the park thriving by cleaning the outdoor hockey rink, refurbishing the playgrounds and painting the building.
"The Tigers and Red Wings are proud of our longtime partnership with the Clark Park Coalition and Anthony Benavides as they seek to provide access and opportunity in sports for children across southwest Detroit," Brown said. "Whether we're donating baseballs and bats, or rallying colleagues to revitalize the outdoor ice rink, Anthony and our friends in the Clark Park community know they can count on the Tigers and Red Wings for support."
And while he's received awards from every sports team in town and he's gained national recognition for his hard work and philanthropy, Benavides, who still lives three blocks from Clark Park and watches his three children enjoy Clark Park programming, said he has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.
"I see the Clark Park Coalition growing," Benavides said. "We have new young board members; we have vibrant people. Our hockey program and our little building where we gather are busting at the seams.
"So we'd like to see it continue to grow. We'd like to see the baseball program continue to grow; we'd like to see more kids use it throughout the year. Hopefully we can get more kids involved in all aspects of sports at the park, and get more families out there in our neighborhood."