How Lacrosse Is Helping Youth In Oakland Stay In School

By Juan Martinez / @JuanTMartinez

It is slightly after 2 p.m. on a warm Sunday May afternoon when a group of 44 kids arrives for lacrosse practice at Laney College in Oakland, California.

Some of the kids run onto the school’s turf football field, while others scramble to grab their shoulder pads, sticks and warrior lacrosse cleats. After stretching for 15 minutes and doing jumping jacks, all of the boys gather around their coach, Kevin Kelley.

“Be quick. Have a sense of urgency,” Kelley tells the kids. “Get it rolling.”

Kelley talks in a firm yet friendly manner, like a guidance counselor. When making a point, or getting a player’s attention, he often uses only his hands — making quirky gestures like aircraft directors do.

When one of his players completes a difficult pass, he celebrates by doing a fist pump like Tiger Woods.

“Nice toss,” Kelley yells as the passer jogs off the field. “Good form. Nice job with the left hand.”

At the end of practice, Kelley gets together with the kids to form a giant circle, where three players are chosen to lead the group’s end-of-practice ritual cheer. “When I say Oakland, you say lacrosse … Oakland, lacrosse, Oakland lacrosse,” the kids yell. “Who are we? O, a, k, l, a, n, d. Oakland lacrosse!”

In the past decade, the sport of lacrosse has grown exponentially in the greater Bay Area at both the high school and Division 1 college levels. In 2002, there were roughly 40-50 high school lacrosse teams. Today, there are well over 100.

Despite this, the sport remains rarefied. According to 2010 data from US Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, over 90 percent of lacrosse players, officials, coaches and administrators are white.

Now, Kelley wants to change that. In 2012, Kelley created the nonprofit Oakland Lacrosse Club (OLC), with the specific mission of bringing the sport to kids who would normally never get a chance to play it.

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“Lacrosse is a suburban sport,” Kelley said. “It costs a lot of money to play. I just want to create a culture and environment for Oakland kids through a game that I love and grew up playing.”

Compared to baseball and football, lacrosse remains one of the most expensive high school sports — more than twice as expensive as baseball or basketball. The startup cost for a team can be anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000. In addition to equipment, each team must pay an additional $1,000 to rent a field for both practice and tournament purposes.

“There are so many different layers to the diversity challenges in our sport,” said Eboni Preston-Laurent, the senior manager of diversity and inclusion at US Lacrosse. “For one thing, it’s expensive, especially for boys, because of the full set of gear they require — the stick itself can run you about $100 these days. I think lacrosse in general is a growing sport, but there are still kids on the West Coast and in the Midwest who have no idea what the sport is.”

Overall, the OLC’s retention rate is around 90 percent. One-third of the kids are returning players, but almost all of the rest have only recently learned the sport.

“Every sport in America was once like lacrosse before it got diversified and integration took place,” said OLC Director of Individual and Team Development LaNon Gillins. “Kids ask me all the time, ‘Isn’t it a white sport?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, but so what?’”

Through OLC, Kelley offers free clinics to interested students for eight weeks in the fall and spring every year. He and his team of assistant coaches and volunteers, which includes University of California, Berkeley men and women lacrosse players, meet with a group of kids for two hours. The clinics are intended to give boys and girls the opportunity to learn the fundamentals and also learn how to play at a high level.

Lacrosse is unique in that it has the spacing of soccer, gamesmanship of basketball and the physicality of hockey.

“Most of the teams we play have more experience,” Kelley said. “We want our teams to battle with and beat top teams from the state.”

A big component of the OLC is teaching the lessons inherent to team sports, like how to be a good teammate, the importance of positive communication and developing the habits of persistence.

To launch the program, Kelley partnered with six Oakland middle schools (Claremont, Brewer, Oakland Military Institute, Westlake, Urban Promise Academy and Life Academy), with the goal of recruiting students from a diverse array of backgrounds. Last year, 40 percent of Kelley’s players were African-American, and 29 percent were Latino. Just 5 percent were white.

“People told me Oakland was a basketball town,” Kelley said. “They told me that I could never get kids to play lacrosse because it wasn’t culturally relevant to them. That pissed me off. It made me want to prove them wrong!”

Last summer, boys and girls in the OLC participated in a number of lacrosse-related activities throughout the Bay Area. Kelley fielded a U15 team at the Battle of the Bay tournament on Treasure Island. His players battled and played five games in two days against elite teams from Sacramento and Santa Cruz.

Aside from teaching kids about lacrosse, Kelley provides opportunities for kids to take college tours and learn more about nutrition and leadership by going to workshops. Ten of Kelley’s players received scholarships to attend summer camps at Stanford University and UC Berkeley. Over the span of three days, Oakland youth not only got a feel for what life is like on a college campus, but also were given over 20 hours of instruction from both Stanford and UC Berkeley coaches and players.

In addition, two of Kelley’s players were chosen to play in the 2014 World Youth Lacrosse Championship in Denver. Along with playing in five games against teams from across the country, kids in the OLC did some team bonding activities, which included white water river rafting, watching other world championship games and doing an intense workout at Red Rocks amphitheater.

Kelley also created a nutrition program to help Oakland kids eat healthier foods. With the help from volunteers, Kelley provides water, seasonal fruit and other snacks to his players at every practice and game. Once a month, kids participate in a workshop where they learn how to prepare their own food.

At Westlake and Urban Promise Academy, the OLC has implemented a year-round academic support program where coaches help oversee the academic progress of players.

“We have a dynamic mentorship, nutrition and academic youth program,” Gillins said. “Lacrosse is just the hook, how we get them.”

Kelley grew up in Needham, Massachusetts, and attended Needham High School. He eventually went on to play lacrosse at Providence College, which is a Division I program. But it wasn’t until he moved to the Bay Area that he developed an interest in helping urban youth and coaching lacrosse.

Growing up, Kelley became interested in lacrosse when his older brother joined the high school team and went on to play goalie in high school and college.

In 2004, Kelley started a reading and writing after-school program for 6th-12th graders at Making Waves Academy — a charter school in Richmond, California. He then got his first coaching gig at Piedmont High School, where he served as the head coach of the boy’s lacrosse team from 2004-2009.

Today, Kelley works as a goalie coach for UC Berkeley’s men’s lacrosse team.

“What I want to teach and what I want my players to learn are life skills,” Kelley said. “I love coaching and working in education more than playing lacrosse because of the impact that you can have.”

The OLC has a 10-to-1 player-to-coach ratio, which allows Kelley to develop close relationships with his players, many of whom come from low-income families and often have not played team sports before.

“In that first year, we were focusing so much on making sure to have kids in the program and doing all this work just to get them to the field that we weren’t able to focus on the skill development of the kids,” Kelley said. “Now you’re bringing kids into this sport, instead of liking it, they are getting blown out every week. That was frustrating. Nobody likes to lose 10–1 and 11–1.”

Because the OLC has only a small staff, a typical day for Kelley consists of him having to figure out how to get a variety of snacks to practice, driving his gold 2004 Toyota Highlander to one middle school and picking up four to five kids, cramming them in his backseat with a bunch of equipment, dropping them off at Laney College during one stop, and driving back to pick up another group of kids at another middle school because otherwise his players regularly wouldn’t be able to make it to practice.

During the season, Kelley will often work 12- to 13-hour days.

“I first met Kevin nine years ago at Piedmont when I was coaching the girl’s team, and my first impression of him was that I loved his work ethic,” Gillins said. “Not everyone has the ability to work, and continue to work, without seeing the fruits of their labor.”

The biggest priority for Kelley is trying to figure out how to help his players when they are away from the field.

A family member of one of Kelley’s players was shot at in West Oakland last year. The boy was with his older brother when the shooting took place. Kelley worked with the kid to think about how he could get him home safely every night.

“My first thought was that he is going to be returning to his neighborhood each night, so we needed to make sure he gets a ride home,” Kelley said. “I didn’t want him to be mistaken for someone else and be a victim to gun violence.”

Another of Kelley’s players spent part of last year homeless. At practice, Kelley bought him lunch and made sure he was eating regularly. In practice, Kelley focuses on resiliency and preaches that to his players. He wants them to be seen as athletes and not as victims.

Such support can make a difference in a city like Oakland, where only 67 percent of kids graduate high school. Assistant Principal Dennis Guikema of Urban Promise Academy recalled that “it was very interesting to see kids, who I had not seen involved in sports before, get really engaged in lacrosse.”

Guikema appreciates that the OLC promotes a happy, healthy and positive lifestyle for kids by giving them another option to perform physical activities. Children growing up in East and West Oakland have a life expectancy 12 years less than children living in Piedmont and are five times more likely to develop type II diabetes than children living in Piedmont.

Guikema is excited about what the OLC is doing at his school. Since the beginning, he notes, Kelley has made it clear that he wants Oakland kids to graduate from high school and continue their education at four-year universities or community colleges.

“In middle school, a lot of times kids just need a fresh start,” Guikema said. “I’ve recommended the OLC to my colleagues at other middle schools because with this being something new, it levels the playing field for them.”

One rainy night last fall, I joined Kelley at the OLC’s second annual hors d’oeuvres and cocktails silent auction, at the Minna Art Gallery in San Francisco. Although Kelley appeared happy to be there, the dark circles under his eyes revealed his fatigue. Worried about sustaining the OLC’s funding, he had spent the entire day sending texts, calling and emailing people, urging them to attend the auction, which featured donated items ranging from a Lake Tahoe house rental to a football autographed by San Francisco 49ers Hall of Famers Steve Young and Jerry Rice.

“It’s hard to continually run a strong program when you’re taking care of a number of different issues,” Kelley admitted, sounding tired. “In the past six to seven months, I’ve applied for about 12 different grants and am always meeting with individual donors.”

As a DJ blasts ’80s R&B and contemporary pop music from five giant speakers, Kelley works the room. He high-fives some people as if they were his players and nods his head as he leans over to listen to other people’s conversations.

Kelley hoped to raise $25,000 before the night was over. At one point, grabbing a microphone, he encouraged his supporters to donate to the OLC even if they didn’t bid on an item.

“The price to support one kid in the program is $1,000,” he said to a crowd of 75 people, which included businessmen, parents and lacrosse enthusiasts from all over the Bay Area. “All I ask is for people to make some kind of donation.”

The night was a success. By the end, Kelley had raised around $27,000 for the OLC — enough to cover field costs, food, uniforms, equipment, transportation costs and computers for the academic program.

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Moving forward, Kelley would like for his program to grow even more. In the next few years he hopes to expand the program to start as early as 4th grade, with the goal of having a network of support for kids from their peers — college players mentoring high school players, high school players mentoring middle school players and middle school players mentoring elementary students.

“Seeing this vision come to fruition is important,” Kelley says. “Kids from anywhere can exceed expectations. I knew if I put the right things in place, I could just sit back and watch as Oakland kids catch, throw and scoop up a ball real easily. That’s why you coach … to see the growth, drive and competitiveness from all of your players in such a short time.”

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