By Kim Constantinesco
Christopher Astacio was having an “out-of-body” experience in mid-March while watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
That’s because the beloved comedian and host of a show that has won 36 Daytime Emmy Awards, was talking about Astacio live on-air to more than four million viewers nationwide. Actually, she wasn’t just talking about him. She was reading heartfelt letters from the players he coaches. The reason? Obviously, it’s good.
And Astacio wasn’t just parked in front of the television in the comforts of his own home. He was in the studio audience sitting next to three of his girls.
Astacio is a 38-year-old P.E. teacher and coach at Jordan L. Mott Junior High School 22 in the Bronx, New York who started a softball program to help girls stay away from dangerous street life and to eliminate young teen pregnancies.
To say he’s loved by the dozens of fatherless girls he coaches is an understatement. To do justice to the extent he’s opened doors and changed their lives is difficult. And through it all, Astacio has battled stomach cancer with his Lady Tigers by his side.
With a story like that, it’s no wonder Ellen became a fan.
One Girl At A Time
Astacio was born and bred in the South Bronx. With the legendary New York Yankees just down the road, it was almost natural for him to fall into baseball. He played shortstop and second base through high school, and learned the value of having coaches who care.
It was a good pastime, especially in an area where 50% of its residents live in poverty. Gang violence, drug trafficking, and prostitution still riddle the streets. That’s why Astacio has taken it upon himself to lift young girls away from that treacherous setting.
Astacio hit the pause button on his college education in 2003 when his son was born. Opting to work and raise his child full-time, he figured he could always go back to earn a degree. Astacio was told, particularly by his older sister, he was a natural with children. She constantly urged him to to become a teacher, so when she suddenly died at 31 due to a stroke, Astacio took her advice.
“When she passed, I thought I owed it to her to go back to college and become a teacher like she wanted me to,” he said.
He earned his bachelors in Education at York College and his Masters in Health Education at Lehman College. He became an assistant teacher, and worked various after-school programs and summer camps as well.
Eventually, he landed the position at Jordan L. Mott. The first year he was there, he felt called to do something to unite the female students and give them an option to go somewhere safe after school.
“The girls were all over the place,” Astacio said. “They were not getting along, and I felt like I should do something, but I didn’t know what to do because I wasn’t their teacher. I taught phys ed., so I tried to use what I know the best, which is sports. I created a girls softball team so they would have something after school, so they weren’t hanging out in the street or doing something negative with their lives.”
Seven girls showed up to the “tryout” that first year.
“They showed up but they didn’t even want to play softball,” he said. “They just didn’t want to go home. That year, I wasn’t really teaching them softball. I was teaching them how to be respectful and how to value their education.”
At the time, all the school had was a cracked Wiffle bat and a few Wiffle balls. The field itself was a disaster. It was filled with broken glass and surrounded by gang violence. So, Astacio swept the field himself and reached out to an online charity that helps public school educators gather materials for the classroom.
By the time his organizing efforts were complete, the softball team was up to 28 girls.
But, the biggest challenge that first year didn’t necessarily come from the softball field. It was getting the girls to stay within arms reach of the team, where Astacio could influence them for the better, and facilitate “team meetings” to allow the girls to see they had more in common than they thought. It was all about bridging the perceived gap the girls saw between one another.
“Most of the girls don’t have stability at home,” Astacio said. “Some don’t have father figures and some go home to nobody because either one or both parents work, or because there’s no parent at all. They have to take care of themselves or take care of younger brothers and sisters, they have to take brothers and sisters to school in the morning because their parents are at work. They have to take on extra responsibilities because their brothers are in gangs.”
In time, the girls found solace not in softball, but in having a family in the form of sisters that look out for one another. They also found comfort in Astacio having their backs.
“The second year, over 60 girls came out for tryouts because they heard how great I was as a coach. Not as a softball coach, but as a mentor.”
More Than A Coach
Astacio’s to-do list as a coach is expansive. He often skips his own lunch to visit classrooms in order to make sure his players are where they’re supposed to be. Sometimes he makes home visits to help his girls communicate with their parents more efficiently. He organizes volunteer opportunities, like going to the Food Bank For NYC to pack meals for the homeless. He also brings his players on college visits.
It started with small nearby colleges, and then he raised enough money to bring girls to schools like Florida State and Chicago University.
“We went to Pace University in Pleasantville, New York, and one girl said, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know such a place existed,'” Astacio recalled. “I’m trying to get them to think about what’s possible beyond the Bronx.”
And his Lady Tigers love him for it. As much as Astacio supports them, they in turn, have his back as well. When he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2009, surgeons removed one-third of his stomach. He fought the disease until 2015, when doctors told him he was in remission.
“The team would write emails and send me letters when I was in the hospital,” Astacio said. “At school, they helped me carry things. It’s great to have girls who look at me like a father. It’s great to feel needed. I felt like I had to fight for these girls.”
And now the girls fight for themselves.
“They had very low self esteem and now they want better for themselves,” he said. “Girls that were angry, they’re not as angry. These girls have become leaders of this school. They hold their heads up high because they feel like they’re worth something to somebody, and they are.”
Astacio has a clean bill of health now, and when Ellen presented him with a $20,000 check, he could have used it to pay off some medical bills and make his own life a little easier. Instead, he’s decided to donate the entire amount to the Fund for Public Schools.
“They’ve agreed to use the funds for Lady Tiger expenses,” he said. “I am grateful for the check but my girls made me the person I am today and this money should be theirs. Since we do not get any funding, I know this will help my softball program flourish. This decision was not easy to make since I could have used some of the money but I just want my girls and the program to be covered in the case I am unable to be a coach because of health reasons…By donating this check, I ensure that my girls keep going strong for as long as the money lasts.”
Now that’s a coach to introduce four million people to.
Here’s his appearance on Ellen: