A Pandemic Won’t Stop Coaching Corps Coaches from Helping Their Neighbors

By: Lyle Greene

I recently spoke with the 2020 National Coaching Corps “Coach of the Year,” Mackenzie O’Connell. Mackenzie and I reflected on the past six months since she received the prestigious honor in San Francisco, and all that has transpired since then. She earned the award for her relentless volunteer dedication to coaching youth sports and her determination to impact the lives of her volleyball players.

Mackenzie is a volunteer at heart—it’s in her blood. She feels herself the most when she is out in the community providing support. In her words, “I was born to help others.”

With a global pandemic occurring and shelter-in-place orders in effect, youth sports are on hold. There is no indication of when kids will return to fields and courts. But that hasn’t deterred Mackenzie. In one swift moment, she went from coaching her kids over 10 hours each week in person to not seeing them at all. This was a tough and unexpected transition for her. Although the frequency of in-person practices and games vanished, she realized that Zoom video created an opportunity for Mackenzie to coach her kiddos.

Coach Mackenzie coaching her players through Zoom.

It’s not the same as coaching on the court, but the strong connection Mackenzie has with her players is still obvious.

I asked Mackenzie what she misses most about coaching youth sports before the use of Zoom. She responded, “Everything! I miss their jokes and watching their development. Right before shelter in place started, we were working on a team song.” The song was “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” by Whitney Houston.

With COVID-19 affecting under-resourced communities the most, and not knowing where Coaching Corps families would get their next meal from, the organization decided to activate their resources in new ways to meet the urgent needs of children and families in the communities they support.

Coaching Corps is a small world that naturally focuses on connecting coaches in each community. Mackenzie met Misha Dale, another Coaching Corps coach, at an event in San Diego a few years ago. They both have similar passions for volunteering, helping others, and making a significant impact in their communities through coaching and mentoring.

Misha is a dedicated community member passionate about making social change in her community. Coaching Corps trained and connected Misha to coach basketball at San Diego’s Monarch School, designed to educate and support homeless youth. With COVID-19, Monarch students are facing ever-greater challenges.

Misha Dale served as a Team Captain for Coaching Corps.

Coaching Corps reached out to Mackenzie and Misha to volunteer at a local food bank, to which they immediately said yes.

They sorted, packaged, and distributed food to families dealing with food insecurity. Cars lined up outside the food bank stretching over two miles. Some families waited eight hours to receive their food. Mackenzie, Misha and the rest of the volunteer team served meals to hundreds of families that day.

Misha takes pride in community building and being there for one another, especially now with COVID-19. Misha shared, “We have an obligation to care and look out for each other.”

At Monarch, Misha has learned more about team building than basketball. It’s about the strong relationships she has made with her players. That entails getting to know each player and providing life advice when needed. Whether it’s handing out food, extending a shoulder to cry on, or being good company, Misha is there to inspire kids.

Even though youth sports are on pause, Mackenzie and Misha have not lost sight of their ability to make a difference.

I asked Misha the same question I asked Mackenzie about what she misses most about coaching youth sports. Not surprisingly, she had the same answer Mackenzie did, “Everything!”

To join the Summer #CorpsCommunity and ways you can get involved, visit www.coachingcorps.org

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Going Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

Benita Vargas-Brown, Volleyball Coach at Hampstead Hill Academy

Benita Vargas-Brown grew up in one of the poorest parts of Baltimore. She always wanted to make a difference in the city, which is why she became a social worker. That same passion eventually led her to coach and mentor kids in sports. Learn more about Benita’s journey in her own words.
How did you become a Coaching Corps coach?
I didn’t go looking for coaching, it found me. I was really stressed with my job and my final semester in undergrad, so my husband said, “You’re really not helping yourself. Why don’t you leave your job, take the semester off, and figure out what you want to do next?” So, I went to a volunteering fair, and that’s when I got to know Coaching Corps. It was destiny: They were looking for a volleyball coach, and I am qualified to coach volleyball. They said they needed a coach for Hampstead Hill Academy, which is literally just a walk away from our home. So, it was really perfect.
Can you tell us more about the challenges that the kids you coach face at school and at home?
When people hear Baltimore, crime and violence are among the usual challenges that come to mind, so it was extra important to keep the kids off the streets. I’ve had to drive some of the girls home so they don’t have to take the bus when it’s dark.
There have also been some differences among the girls. The school is located at Patterson Park, where on one side you have the million-dollar houses, and on the other you have boarded-up houses. So you wind up having kids coming from privileged and underprivileged situations. This created some interesting dynamics within the team that led to some difficult conversations, but we got through it eventually. That’s one of the benefits of team sports. We got this whole learning experience that wound up really positive at the end.
You mentioned something about “interesting team dynamics.” Can you share more about that?
This is actually one of the things I’m proudest [of] about my team. The girls take it upon themselves to address differences within the group. At one point, it became very clear during our practice that something wasn’t right. We were on this championship drive but there was obvious tension within the team. The girls came to me and gathered as a group to talk things through. The fact that they came up with that strategy on their own is really amazing. For me, it meant that we’re doing something right. After that talk, we got back together as a team. I’m so glad we did it because I know for a fact we wouldn’t have won the championship without sorting things out. Everybody makes mistakes. At the end of the day, what’s important is to be there and have each other’s backs.
What changes or improvements did you see in the girls as a result of being on the team?
The most obvious one would be the sense of maturity. To be in a position where you have a responsibility over something, to be able to practice and play, there are expectations. If you didn’t come to practice on Wednesday, you’re not going to play on Thursday: that’s the consequence for skipping practice.  Eventually it wasn’t the consequence that really drove them. It was their commitment.
All my [Coaching Corps] girls who tried out for high school sports made their teams. There are two highly-rated schools in Baltimore, Baltimore Polytechnic institute and Baltimore City College. To get into those schools is every parent’s and kid’s dream. They have great education and high graduation rates, and they don’t tolerate gang-related violence, which creates a safer environment for the kids. Fifteen of the girls from the team got in and played for Poly while 13 went to City. That makes me really happy.
Wow! If there’s one way to describe success and promoting equity, that would be it. With all these experiences, what advice would you give aspiring coaches and mentors for kids?
Show up. You have to be there. You have to be consistent. You can’t cancel on these kids. Over the course of my time, if I know something’s going to come up in my schedule, I plan for an assistant coach to take over. Kids know if you care. You can figure out everything else, there are Youtube videos for that. You just have to show up because these kids expect you to be there for them.
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