Smile Politely

Shannon McFarland is strengthening her community, one baseball game at a time

A black woman with long black braids, a black shirt, and tan pants stands in front of a tall black fence with a baseball diamond behind it. There is green padding around the lower part of the fence.
Louise Knight-Gibson

Shannon McFarland wants to change the world. Sitting on the bleachers overlooking McFarland Field (named after her family) McFarland laid out how baseball is positively influencing the youth in the surrounding area and beyond. As a lifelong Champaign-Urbana resident, McFarland has strong ties to this community through her family who also resides here and her connection to the field at Douglass Park. She describes herself as an investor, a coach, and a communications executive. “I’m staying in my car, but I can hop into a lot of different lanes.” she said, while describing her work. Recently the Champaign City Council granted $400,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding to the Champaign Park District, which will go towards improvements to the baseball field and the surrounding area. McFarland sat down with me to discuss legacy and what’s in store for McFarland Field in the next few years. She might not have changed the world yet, but she is for sure changing her community for the better.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The side view of the McFarland Field concession stand. It is a small gray building with a white door against the tall black baseball fence.
Louise Knight-Gibson

Smile Politely: You wear a lot of hats, do you have a favorite group of people you work with?

Shannon McFarland: I brought you here to Douglass. I love people who are from my community. People who have gone away and come back or maybe who have always been here. I love people who want to make a difference in kids’ lives and who want to see them happy. So I do try to drive a lot of love through my community initiatives and a lot of my networking through Douglass Park and McFarland field. I grew up here. That’s how I learned sports, how I learned to communicate, and how I learned teamwork. I’m trying to expand out to Champaign County but it’s important to start here at Douglass Park.

A view of McFarland Field on a sunny day. There are children on the field wearing red t-shirts playing baseball on the field.
Shannon McFarland

SP: You went away to school, right? What brought you back?

McFarland: I did, I knew I wanted to leave right away after high school, the only college I applied to was in Atlanta. I went to Clark Atlanta, I played volleyball there. I came back after I graduated, worked for my mom at the Boys and Girls Club. And then by the time I was the elementary site director, I just wanted to do more. So I got my masters in recreation and sport management in Miami, Florida. I lived there for two years and it was a lot of fun. I thought I had my dream job, I was director of women’s basketball operations for Florida National University. Then my grandmother got sick and family was way more important. So my six month trip back home turned into a six year trip. And that’s when I really dug in deep here and I started teaching and coaching. 

SP: How did your family get involved in sports and Douglass Park? 

McFarland: So there was a time (in the early 1990s) when Douglass Park was really bad. Around Christmas time, we were over at my Aunt Fanny’s house, which is on Beardsley over here. She’s passed away now, but we were over at our house having coffee and cake. And they [the family] were up in arms, asking “What can we do about kids? What is going on? Why don’t they have anything to do?” Baseball popped up. And the next thing I know, we’re out here cleaning glass off the field and my dad and brother are organizing baseball teams. There was already a field here, so we figured we might as well use it and got started with the fundamentals of baseball. We had four original teams, named after the Negro League. Then the following year, we had peanut league, which is where I started — my team was the Cincinnati Tigers — then we evolved into T-ball, we also started traveling more, and playing in the Twin City tournaments. As a result, people were less afraid to come over to Douglass, because we took care of the park. It has been a whirlwind and we just celebrated 30 years. 

A large gray school bus is painted with a colorful blue and orange mural. It is sitting In the parking lot
Shannon McFarland

SP: McFarland Field just received a $400,000 grant from the City of Champaign, how will that impact the work that you do? 

McFarland: The money is going towards a new concession stand out here, outdoor restrooms, and a new field. The grant is part of the reason we’re getting it done. But this grant doesn’t just impact the field. Douglass Park is getting outdoor restrooms, Douglass Park is getting a new pavilion. The community and the kids here are getting a third field which will hopefully be able to drive revenue. We just really wanted this for Douglass Park, because it was time. 

A shot of the scoreboard of the McFarland baseball field. There is a winding sidewalk on the left side of the image and the outfield and scoreboard on the right. It's a cloudy day.
Louise Knight-Gibson

SP: If you could look five or ten years into the future, what kind of Douglass Park do you see?

McFarland: We haven’t hosted an outside team for a tournament, so that would be great. I would love for us to have the capacity to focus on softball for young girls and women. I think that would be a nice little goal in five to ten years. 

The memorial for Shannon McFarland's grandfather is a large stone with a plaque on top of a circular brick structure. It is sitting in front of a dugout.
Louise Knight-Gibson

SP: It seems like legacy and community play a big role in this field? 

McFarland: It is fundamental in the Kiwanis mission for parents or fathers to coach their sons, but we have far more mother’s coaching. And I just kind of love how that compassion is led and started at that T-ball level first. We love when people just pop up to the games and come have dinner with us. Some people come here just for the food, sometimes they know someone who’s playing or it’s a friend’s grandkid. We want to be a hotspot for the summer. We also appreciate our sponsors who are mostly small business owners. They share space along the fence and that’s another way that the community has been involved. 

Culture Editor

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