Think about the conversations and concerns of most high school age lacrosse players. Think about those last conversations you heard as you sat at a high school game or tournament. They probably had something to do with stats, college scouts, travel-team costs that hover in the thousands of dollars per player, state of the art equipment, trainers, coaches, the heat and blazing sun, and the comparing of the most detailed of sublimated uniforms. Your team may have the best tent city with coolers filled with sports drinks and snacks, fans to keep cool and monogrammed sports chairs. Parents’ biggest concerns are often playing time, the unfairness of the officials, the long commute, the lack of performance from a child or team, and tournament brackets. There’s likely at least one red-faced screaming tantrum coming from a parent, official or coach as the emotions run high in competition. Another perhaps stalking the sideline with the play by play obsessed with every move of every player. And as we lose our minds, forgetting in those moments what playing this game is all about, there’s another reality we don’t see – mostly because they can’t afford to be there.
Imagine for just a moment that we take all of that away, and put your child into what was called just three years ago, the most dangerous school in America – for 5 years running. A school where sports teams didn’t exist. What if suddenly, your most pressing concern was your child coming home uninjured, what they would eat today or how you could afford pencils, or even just keeping them out of jail? And what if that school started a lacrosse team and your child was on it? What would your concerns be then as you sat down to watch if you were able to even get away from work to watch? Would they still be the same?
One 10th grade student from Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia says in an interview with Diane Sawyer, “Why would I have hope?” when asked about her future. She echoed the sentiments of many, who feel trapped in a poverty stricken area with little help coming in. But in 2013, hope showed up in the form of a new Principal, Cliatt-Wayman, and a TV special that brought this school, on the brink of closing and wrecked with violent fights, to the attention of our country. When great leaders step in like Principal Wayman, and when America comes together along with caring coaches who bring love and structure, great things happen.
Eyekonz founder, Jazmine Smith saw the documentary on Strawberry Mansion High School. Through her league, that helps hundreds of African American girls find themselves through the lessons and guidance of sports, she offered to start and coach a girls’ lacrosse and field hockey team under the umbrella of her Eyekonz program- the first African American club program for lacrosse and field hockey in the state of Pennsylvania. These girls had never heard of lacrosse, had never seen a stick, had never strapped on a pair of goggles. They had to learn to be accountable for their behavior. Before the team could even begin to work on lacrosse skills, they first had to learn to work together instead of fighting. I asked Coach Smith the difference in the girls in one season and she said it was extraordinary. Sports in themselves don’t change lives, but they can be used as a powerful tool in transformation when we focus on the life lessons and let those lead us to victory.
Without the distractions present in more privileged areas, the true meaning of sports has nowhere to hide. No mask of money to dilute or warp it. Hope, discipline, structure, accountability, teamwork, leadership, and sweaty hard work. I watched the Diane Sawyer special that inspired Coach Smith to step in and in it Principal Wayman says, “When children have hope, they can succeed.” It is in this spirit that the lacrosse and field hockey teams were started at Strawberry Mansion High School. These girls don’t want scholarships for bragging rights, they are hoping for the first time to have a chance to go to college at all. Their team isn’t a clique of friends who hang out at practice, it goes beyond all of that. These players are family. Sisters that are helping each other to stay on track and surround each other. Together, because of a game, they can dare to dream of a better future. These players truly epitomize the spirit of playing for more, and they could teach many of the privileged teams a thing or two about real adversity and what it means to truly fight to overcome it alongside your teammates.
If you were at the inaugural UWLX games over Memorial Day weekend then you had the honor of watching Strawberry Mansion’s very first girls’ lacrosse team take the field in an exhibition game through a partnership between Play it Forward Sports, UWLX and Eyekonz. Many of these girls were for the first time in their lives traveling outside of their zip code, standing on a beautiful turf field at a beautiful University in front a large crowd and playing a game they had recently never heard of. They stepped out of their small uncertain world and saw something that we take for granted every single day- options, possibilities, hope, the other side of limitation.
If you think diversifying lacrosse and spreading it into new areas is a good idea and you hope that someday, somehow, its happening, then that’s a small step in the right direction. But if your program can truly grasp the life changing experience that we can bring to kids all over this country by building hope, structure, and a place to excel – not just grasp it- but act on it, then we are starting to get the message about why kids sports aren’t really just about awards, titles, officals, coaches and money.
Jazmine Smith has built a program through Eyekonz that fills a need for over 250 girls and growing. Play It Forward Sports has reached into communities to build opportunities for girls all over the country. But we don’t have to be a foundation to build on what Smith, or Aronda Kirby and Digit Murphy (Play It Forward Sports Foundation) have started. We don’t have to seek out the most dangerous school in America, we can look right in our communities’ backyards. Donating gear, offering low cost or free clinics, volunteering, supporting initiatives already out there, providing scholarships to low income kids, or having your team adopt or help start a new program in your area where they wouldn’t be able to do it on their own are all great ways to get involved.
Here’s a link to the special on Strawberry Mansion that aired by Diane Sawyer Incredibly moving piece, also look for her follow up special on the changes that have been happening at this school and how you can help.