How lacrosse has taken hold in Oakland’s inner-city neighborhoods, and how US Lacrosse helped to make it happen

If you can see it, you can be it.

As a group of roughly 50 middle-school kids, many of whom are holding a stick for the first time, rotate through drill stations at an Oakland (Calif.) Lacrosse Club practice in October, co-founder LaNon Gillins shares the basics of the game and a bit of inspiration with their wide-eyed parents.

“Lacrosse teaches resilience,” he says. “Anyone who’s played knows why — because you’re going to drop the ball about a thousand times before you get good at catching it.”

For kids who grow up in Oakland, resilience is the key to unlocking the future. Some struggle with food insecurity, be it inconsistent meals or lack of access to healthy food options. Others are dealing with an unstable home life or have experienced violence in their neighborhoods.

Watch the newest episode of US Lacrosse "Stick Stories" with Oakland Lacrosse Club on YouTube

 

Executive Director Kevin Kelley, a former Providence College goalie turned West Coast transplant, co-founded Oakland Lacrosse Club in 2012 after spending a decade coaching lacrosse and working in urban education for a Bay Area nonprofit. Initially, he traveled from school to school, offering students a free opportunity to try lacrosse in physical education classes. The sport was foreign to most inner-city kids, who grew up seeing peers play basketball, football or run track.

“Because of the rise of pay-to-play sports and schools not having the resources, in cities like Oakland, thousands of kids don’t get the opportunity to be part of a team,” Kelley said.

Most Oakland Lacrosse participants are black, Hispanic or Asian-American. Nearly all attend public school. More than 70 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch. Fifty percent live in neighborhoods where their life expectancy is 12 years fewer than if they lived in a neighboring suburb. Transportation to and from practices and games is a challenge for many.

“Kids need to feel safe to develop,” said Gillins, who joined OLC full-time this year as Director of Lacrosse and Culture. “A lot of our kids are on guard. Why? Because the world they live is in isn’t safe. So the first thing we need to do is allow them to take that mask off. ... That starts with unconditional love.”

With public school funding unavailable, Oakland Lacrosse Club membership is free for students, with the mindset that kids will do amazing things when given access to resources and opportunities. What began with one team and 20 players now is four and 100, respectively.

The club has put down roots at Westlake Middle School, adding academic support sessions and enrichment components — they visited Google in November— on top of lacrosse to create a holistic program. Coaches hold study hall at least twice a week before making their way out to the blacktop to lead practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Kelley hopes to add at least three similar programs at Oakland public middle schools over the next three years.

“We want to create a second family for our kids,” Kelley said. “By creating an environment where they feel that they can succeed, we’re creating a foundation for them to succeed in other areas of their life.”

Oakland Lacrosse Club has benefitted from numerous avenues of US Lacrosse support, including a First Stick Grant in 2013, National Diversity Grants, funding from the Northern California Chapter and participation in the Urban Lacrosse Alliance.

“We would not be where we are today without US Lacrosse,” said Ginger Miles, former Cal women’s coach and current US Lacrosse West Regional Manager who volunteers as president of the Oakland Lacrosse board of directors. “US Lacrosse was the seed money that got us off the ground. It was the original equipment that allowed us to put sticks in hands and start our [P.E.] outreach initiative.”

Middle schoolers who come through Oakland Lacrosse Club can continue on to play at Oakland Tech High School, a 2010 First Stick Grant recipient also overseen by Kelley, and soon, Oakland Military Institute, one of 110 lacrosse teams and organizations in 36 states awarded First Stick Grants in October.

So what does success look like?

Success is Adrian, an eighth grader who worked with OLC mentors four days a week in study hall to turn a failing GPA into a 3.6 in less than a year, and is a vocal leader at practice.

Success is 14-year old Ariam, who emigrated from war-torn Eritrea in east Africa last year, arrived in the U.S. speaking little to no English, and credits Oakland Lacrosse as a catalyst for her transition.

Success is Jamal, who has dreams of attending St. Ignatius, home of California’s top-ranked high school lacrosse program, next year — and the lacrosse skills to make it happen.

While many would consider the program a success just to make it to game day, Oakland's four teams won almost exactly half of their games last spring, participating in the Northern California Junior Lacrosse Association (NCJLA).

The ultimate vision? Give all 40,000 kids in the Oakland Unified School District an opportunity to play lacrosse, and use the sport as a medium to help them in other areas of their life. Kelley and his staff believe in a long-term commitment to the individual from sixth through 12th grade.

“Big picture, we think that the kids coming out of our program will someday be able to change the face of Oakland,” Miles said.

It's an ambitious dream, but if they can see it, they can be it.

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