Give kids an opportunity and they’ll run with it

September 29, 2011 | John Burbank

john burbank

John Burbank, Executive Director

From the Everett Herald:

What does cross country running have to do with education and opportunity? Turns out, a lot. Last Saturday high school teams from Monroe, Woodinville, Seattle, Shelton, Yakima, the Tri-Cities and White River, among others, showed up at the Bellevue High School Cross Country Invitational to see how they could do competing against each other and themselves.

The results showed cross country to be a great leveler, or better yet, a great uplifter. Unlike our current economy, which rewards the already privileged and wealthy while taking away opportunity and advancement from middle class and low-income workers, cross country actually rewards hard work, discipline, and the realization of personal drive and talent.

When I was in high school, cross country was solely a boys’ sport. No girls allowed. Now, thanks to our government, girls are part of the team. The sport creates opportunity and challenge for them as well. I know — my daughter was one of those girls. So when we talk about government, remember it was the passage of Title IX that opened up high school and college sports to girls and women. It wouldn’t have happened by itself.

Cross country offers an avenue for advancement, recognition, pride and hope to kids who are used to being on the outside looking it. Take Eisenhower High School in Yakima. More than two-thirds of the kids are living close to or in poverty. Compare that to Woodinville at about 10 percent in or close to poverty. Or Lakeside, where tuition runs $26,000 a year. That’s more than the total annual income for one-third of the households in Yakima.

Some of the kids at this meet went to Europe for their summer vacations, while others were working in the fields, picking produce. But when they toed the starting line on Saturday, they were all evened up. And when they finished, the kids without privilege more than likely ended up on top.

What’s the secret to success for kids like Xavier Ramirez, Alyssa Pena, Simon Verduzco, Mercedes and Mayra Chavez, and the fastest runner of the day, Santos Vargas, among other kids from Eisenhower High School? I chatted with Phil English, Eisenhower’s coach. Coach English is an immigrant himself, having come to Washington State University from Ireland on a running scholarship. He is the mentor, the team builder, the coach. The kids simply call him “Mister.”

Mister coached the other Eisenhower coaches when they were high school students. Now they are a team of coaches and runners. The team manager, who is deaf and Hispanic, helped Eisenhower win the district championships in 2008. He is planning to transfer to Gaulladet University in Washington, D.C., to major in deaf education and mathematics.

The kids from Eisenhower who won the state boys and girls championships last year were all from poor immigrant families. For most of these kids, English is their second language. Their grade-point averages span the spectrum. Some may not have stayed in school or graduated if not for their commitment to cross country.

Opening the doors has been especially important for Hispanic girls, with Coach English talking up the parents and persuading them that cross country was an opportunity for advancement. Each year a large cohort of these kids go on to community college or four-year colleges, the first in their families to achieve higher education.

Coach English enables cross country to happen. It is his runners who make it happen. In Yakima, it is not a parental ego trip to see how your kid is running. For these kids, it is a crucial step into adulthood, with pride, self-esteem and the confidence to know you can step up to the challenges of life and meet them.

During the week I help out coaching the kids at Ballard High School. I try to challenge them to do better, run faster, think smarter. Sometimes it is good to put things in perspective. The coaches’ race provided that opportunity on Saturday. I ended up at the back of the pack. The kids who couldn’t run three miles last summer cleaned my clock. That’s a good thing, and a bit humbling as well. Hope, opportunity, advancement, humility: all lessons from high school cross country — for all the kids, from the immigrants to the privileged. And for all of us adults, as well.

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