Coach Spotlight: Benita Vargas

Coach Benita Vargas hosts an end of year banquet for her team

Teaching Young Women to Overcome Challenges

Empowering young girls was top of mind when Benita decided to coach volleyball. Teaching young girls to work together, accept new challenges, and use their voices, were skills that Coach Benita knew middle school girls needed in life.

On day one Benita promised her team that she would be committed to helping them get better every week, all she asked in return was that they treat each other with respect, behave, and commit themselves to getting better.

With their rules in place, Benita and her team began to practice. Most of the girls on her team had never played volleyball before, but they were eager to learn. Every week, she saw them abiding by their team rules…they were working hard on and off the court, they were respectful and they put forth solid effort.

Soon enough, the team faced their first challenge – a game against Highlandtown Middle School, the best team in their league. Benita’s team fell behind quickly, and she wondered how her team would react. They fell even further behind, and lost just thirty minutes. She could see some of her players visibly getting upset. Since they had lost quickly, and the gym time had already been scheduled, the opposing coach asked if they wanted to scrimmage for fun. Benita discussed it with her team, who were still wounded by their quick loss. They agreed unanimously to shake off the loss and view the scrimmage as an opportunity to gain more practice.

That scrimmage sparked a new ambition in her players. At the next practice a handful of girls asked Benita if they could stay late and keep practicing. Benita stayed with them, giving them personal coaching to develop their individual skills. The next week, more girls asked to stay late, and before long her entire team was staying for an extra thirty minutes because they wanted to keep getting better.  “All you have to do is care a little bit, and it makes a huge difference,” Benita said.

By the end of the season they were a far cry from the team that lost so quickly to Highlandtown Middle School. And when they met Highlandtown again, the girls played on a much more competitive level.  Although they lost, Benita couldn’t have been prouder of her girls, because she had set out to focus on the learning, not the winning.

The best part for Benita, is that they were proud of themselves.

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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.
Afterschool Partners

Orlando

Boys & Girls Club of Central Florida

City of Orlando Athletics

Afterschool Program Partners

Other

JT Dorsey Foundation

Afterschool Program Partners

San Diego

Gompers Preparatory Academy

High Tech High

La Maestra Foundation – Center for Youth Advancement at Generations

The Monarch School

Pro Kids | The First Tee of San Diego

Soccer Kids America

YMCA of San Diego County

Afterschool Program Partners

Los Angeles

A Place Called Home

AFFIRMATIVE ATHLETICS

After School All Stars: Los Angeles

Boys & Girls Club of Venice

Boys & Girls Clubs of Carson

Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Los Angeles

Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Monica

Boys and Girls Clubs of the LA Harbor

Brotherhood Crusade

City of Huntington Park Department of Parks

East Los Angeles Rising Youth Club

Equitas Academy

Girls on the Run of Los Angeles

Girls Play Los Angeles

ICES Education

IMPACTO

L.A.C.E.R. Afterschool Programs

Long Beach Parks, Recreation and Marine

Los Angeles Rec and Parks

Major League Baseball Youth Academy

Norwalk La Mirada Unified

P.F. Bresee Foundation

Sloane Stephens Foundation

Street Soccer USA: Los Angeles

Team Prime Time

Variety Boys & Girls Club

Watts Rams

YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles

Afterschool Program Partners

ATLANTA

Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta: Samuel L. Jones Boys & Girls Club
Afterschool Program Partners

Boston

All Dorchester Sports and Leadership

Boston Centers for Youth & Families

Boston SCORES

Cambridge Community Center

East End House

Oak Square YMCA

Sole Train: Boston Runs Together