Local Organizations Changing the World Through Sport
The norm has always been academics first. To stay on the team, you have to have good grades and stay out of trouble. But what if being on the team is what is keeping kids safe and boosting their academic performance? Here are four local organizations turning sports into something more.
Baseball is America’s favorite pastime, but for most of us, that’s all it is: a pastime. It is an occasional afternoon at the park, or night out at Angel Stadium. For some kids in Orange County, baseball isn’t just a favorite pastime; it’s an alternative to gang life. For them, baseball is a saving grace.
Joe Baldo has always loved baseball, but he never expected it to become his mode of doing good, and nobody expected it to be the primary mechanism of a movement that is changing the lives of kids and families in Orange County’s hardest neighborhoods. However, as Joe puts it, when something is meant to be, you can’t stop it. That’s how Higher Ground Youth and Family Services, one of Orange County’s fastest-growing nonprofit organizations, came to be.
The road to Higher Ground began from left field, as it were, when Joe unexpectedly received an offer from another company to buy his video production business, which he had spent years building up. Almost before he knew it, the deal was done and Joe was looking to make his new life chapter be one of service. He was invited by friends and mentors to join them in prison ministry, where he quickly learned from prisoners that it was during their teen years that they began getting into trouble; particularly gang-related trouble.
Even though he didn’t know much about working with young people outside of his own experience as a father, Joe thought that if he wanted to help people redirect their lives away from prison, he’d do more good by ministering at Juvenile Hall. As he tells it, it didn’t take him a half hour during his first visit to realize that helping these kids was what he was meant to do; and it didn’t take him much longer to realize that at-risk kids needed his help in their neighborhoods even more than they needed his help in Juvenile Hall.
“There are a lot of good people in gang territories, but they are scared,” says Joe. “Our effort is to show the goodness. Give good people the opportunity to act. And give kids the option to take a good path.”
Joe got out there. He befriended a retired gang unit officer, and they started walking at night in the areas of Anaheim and Santa Ana that see the most gang activity. Some kids would want to talk with them, but some would just run away. Joe decided he needed something and someplace to which he could offer an invitation, rather than trying to chase the kids down. He needed a way to draw them out. He needed baseball.
Joe targeted four elementary schools located in the heart of Anaheim’s hottest gang territories. Knowing that by eighth grade kids were already joining gangs, Joe reached out to the principals and specifically the fourth, fifth and sixth grade teachers at the four campuses and invited students to come play baseball after school. The kids were eager. They formed a small league and found friends ready and willing to help. The Anaheim Angels put their support behind Joe’s effort through the Angel’s Junior RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) League, providing uniforms, mitts and bats. The Anaheim Transportation Network committed to letting Higher Ground players ride to practices and games for free. They quickly added four more schools.
In the couple of short years since it was founded on a handful of school baseball fields, Higher Ground has partnered with other organizations and developed a dedicated group of board members, a growing volunteer base, and other programs, including soccer, basketball, music, arts,dance,martial arts, video, theater, and soon to come nutrition, tutoring and family services.
The city of Anaheim recently committed Lincoln Park as the permanent home of the Higher Ground leagues and services. The grounds will encompass a multi-purpose athletic field for baseball, soccer, softball, football, Frisbee and more, as well a basketball court and a building that will be known as the Club House. TThe Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, has already set aside major
league lockers and training tables, to make the Club House the kind of home base that every kid will want to call their own.
It’s too early to tell if the presence of Higher Ground is decreasing the number of area youth who are joining gangs. What is certain, however, is that the number of Higher Ground members is expanding exponentially, there is more demand for the programs and a greater demand for more activities and sports to be offered by Higher Ground. They are also seeing more young adults, especially ages 12 to 16, joining Higher Ground. By the end of this summer, this was their largest area of growth. The teens are loving it and they are bringing their friends; parents love the camper-to-counselor ratio and the fact that Higher Ground mentors participate in every activity with the kids. This participatory style creates real connections. And connections are what it’s about. As exciting as all the developments have been, when it comes down to it, Higher Ground is built on love.
“Higher Ground is a response to the things I’ve learned in the last few years from the kids,” says Joe Baldo. “They just need good options. They need to be exposed to a lot of good, fun people, and when they do, they just fall in love. And love changes everything.”
Learn more: highergroundoc.org
National Scholastic Skateboarding League (NSSL)
Skateboarding isn’t a traditional school sport and is often prohibited on school campuses, which is why the National Scholastic Skateboarding League takes pride in offering this non-traditional sports program. They have taken a sport that is typically focused on the individual and transformed it into a team sport.
The Orange County Skateboarding League was founded in March 2010 by Katrina Foley of Costa Mesa, who simply wanted to provide her competitive snowboarding son with an organized spring sport. What began as a few teams from a few local high schools rapidly evolved into a program with thirty teams across thirty schools, with more than three hundred skating participants. The rapid growth and interest caused the OCSL to aspire to national reach and take on a new name: the National Scholastic Skateboarding League. A San Diego regional division has recently been added. The league supports both middle and high school skateboarding teams for boys and girls, as well as student programs and skateboarding facility improvements.
“We made it not about becoming a pro, but to draw the connection with the action sports industry,” says league founder Katrina Foley. “Our goal is to have NSSL across the nation, and have it be like any other school sports team.”
NSSL builds strong character and sportsmanship by enthusiastically helping aspiring skaters out of their comfort zones and cheering them on for doing so.
“The NSSL allowed us to truly learn the meaning of teamwork and dedication,” says Costa Mesa’s Jesus Acevedo, a former NSSL skater, first place champion, and recipient of one of two scholarships funded by NSSL. After beginning with the league in 2010 and spending the last four years in the league, he will be taking his unique experiences at NSSL with him to Cal Poly Pomona this fall and applying them to electrical engineering. “All the hard work and dedication I put into my runs and all the time I spent practicing paid off.”
Learn more: nsskateboardingleague.org
Soccer’s the name of the game over at Pure Game, but the mission of this organization extends beyond being able to send the ball into the net. Established in 2009, Pure Game’s goal is to encourage underserved youth to make positive choices while harnessing their unique potential and strengths.
Pure Game is a unique teaching platform that infuses a cooperative and inclusive style of athletics with a character-building curriculum. The flexible Pure Game system allows youth of all ages and skill levels to play virtually anywhere – parks, gyms, parking lots or even streets, which is particularly important in low income communities that lack recreational space. The beauty of the Pure Game model is that it is based on the most popular and accessible sport in the world: soccer. Through soccer Pure Game is teaching kids to be thoughtful, make positive decisions, and to believe in themselves.
Pure Game mentors, or Field Champions, have served over 5,000 of Orange County’s low-income youth and partnered with over 20 other nonprofits.
“I believe children deserve a champion, someone who believes in them,” says Tony Everett, founder and chief play maker at Pure Game. “When kids begin to believe in themselves, it can lead to an understanding of where their lives are headed, making it easier for them to make choices that reflect their future potential.”
Pure Game offers cooperative soccer programs to organizations working with vulnerable children, establishing safe environments in which children can be encouraged and motivated. Pure Game programs are generally eight weeks in length and include the Pure Game “Star & Soccer” character education curriculum, in which children learn about positive values and how to apply them to their daily lives.
Learn more: thepuregame.org
The Gold Rush brought the YMCA to California, and the first Orange County facility opened in Santa Ana in the 1880’s. Affectionately known as “The Y,” the YMCA of Orange County has a long history of keeping families and communities united by keeping them involved and active. A strong community is this organization’s core. The YMCA provides six health and wellness programs throughout the county, as well as over fifty afterschool programs, with the idea of making sure everyone has the opportunity to learn and thrive, regardless of their background or age.
Character development serves as a foundation for all the Y’s programs, which celebrate its fundamental values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility, and provides the opportunities to be healthy in mind, body and spirit.
“Kids can gain the confidence that comes from learning to play or building the positive relationships that lead to good sportsmanship and teamwork,” says Jennifer Tan, communications specialist for YMCA of Orange County. The fostering of new skills and new, positive relationships promote a child’s self-confidence, building up the whole child, from the inside out.
YMCA has a variety of sports offerings – including everything from basketball to martial arts, gymnastics to water polo – that not only teach children and families how to play, but also the benefits of participating.
Learn more: ymcaoc.org