Youthful life at Bird St. Center spurred Juan De Jesus to fulfill dream

From Columbia Rd. to Major League Baseball: Juan DeJesus cultivated skills at Bird Street Community Center.From Columbia Rd. to Major League Baseball: Juan DeJesus cultivated skills at Bird Street Community Center.Juan De Jesus doesn’t get home much these days. The Uphams Corner native is on the road most of the year in Latin America, where he works for Major League Baseball (MLB) to recruit, cultivate, and streamline the entry of young ballplayers into the United States.

It’s a dream job for the 30-year-old De Jesus, a graduate of BC High and Boston College. His mom and dad emigrated to Dorchester from the Dominican Republic. Baseball is in his blood, to be sure. His father knew many pro ball players from his hometown in the D.R. — and DeJesus fancied himself a bit of Fenway Park “rat” — often getting special access to watch batting practice before games.

But it was through his involvement with the Bird Street Community Center on Columbia Road that he learned to play and love the game.

“I’m passionate about it,” De Jesus says of the sport. I love what it can do for people, beyond just the experience of the players. I love what sports can do for people and for underprivileged kids. It can focus a kid on doing something extremely productive and it develops them. That played a huge role for me and for many other folks from Dorchester.”

De Jesus grew up across the street from the Bird Street center, which shares space with the Boston Public Library branch in an old municipal building. Like most kids, sports lured Juan and his friends into Bird Street. The gym’s fourth floor basketball court— home to many line-drive three-pointers, thanks to a low ceiling — gets heavy use year-round and remains the center’s main attraction.

“Basketball, mainly, is what gets you in the door. Then you start to meet the staff and that essentially opens your eyes to other things,” De Jesus said. “For me, the focus became to excel in the classroom. I was also encouraged to develop my leadership skills.”

In fact, at just age 15, De Jesus was invited to join the Bird Street board of directors and quickly became one of the center’s marquee spokesmen— making pitches to potential funders about the experience he and his peers had as members.

“Basically, it wasn’t just about playing basketball and benefiting from it. It was also about giving back and telling supporters about my experience and how powerful the experience was. I think now about the exposure that I got as a 15 and 16 year old in presenting to investors, politicians and such. It was a great opportunity.”

Juan not only sold Bird Street to grant writers, but he also brought in fellow teens, including his younger sister, Niurka, who has since joined him as a proud Boston College graduate.

Daragh Concagh, Bird Street’s education director, credits De Jesus with bringing many other bright students and athletes through the doors. “Because Juan connected him to BSCC, one of his friends found out about the Posse Foundation and won a full scholarship to Bowdoin College,” said Concagh, who remembers being immediately impressed by the “respectful and studious young man” when he was still a student at BC High, returning after school to help tutor younger students, and, sometimes to get extra help himself.

“A hard-working student, Juan wanted to be competitive with his peers and tutoring furthered that goal,” Concagh said.

DeJesus also played three sports— including baseball— at BC High. He’d begun playing baseball through Bird Street around age nine, thanks to Victor Figueroa, a coach who organized an RBI baseball league with many Bird Street players. They’d walk to their games at Mary Hannon Park on Dudley Street during the summer. “That’s how I fell in love with baseball,” said De Jesus.

An injury prevented him from playing baseball in college, but his love for the game intensified after his graduation from BC. After working for three years at a Wall Street investment firm, De Jesus decided to join the Executive Development Program at Major League Baseball about five years ago. Working in the commissioner's office, he was soon assigned to the MLB’s international operations staff, where he has become one of their leading project managers in Latin America. He spends the majority of his time in his parents’ native Dominican Republic, where his language skills and intimate understanding of the culture have made him a perfect fit.

“For the last few years, I’ve been helping to develop infrastructure to manage the entry system for international players,” said De Jesus. “Among the projects I’ve done: I’ve essentially led the launching of a scouting league in the Dominican Republic, helped to develop a drug testing program for international amateurs, and developed a formal entry system. My role has been helping to develop the policy and implementation.”

The job requires a relentless travel schedule.“I spent pretty much all of 2010-11 out of the country, and I’d say about 70 percent of that time was in the Dominican Republic,” De Jesus said. “I also got to Venezuela, Panama, and Nicaragua.”

The Bird Street Community Center will celebrate its 35th anniversary on Tues., May 7, with a dinner at Florian Hall. The event — which will also salute outgoing executive director Andrea Kaiser— begins at 6 p.m. For more information, go to birdstreet.org