It’s So Simple, Yet So Powerful

Janet Carter
Executive Director, Coaching Corps

For me, it was a substitute teacher in my second grade class whose name I cannot remember but whose impact in one short week still resonates all these years later.  She was my Game Changer. She will never know the impact she had on me in one short week of my life. But in that brief time, she taught me that I mattered; that I should be proud of what makes me unique.

I had just come to the US from England and had joined this Detroit second grade class in the middle of the fall semester. The kids were relentless, making fun of my English saddle shoes and school uniform, my accent, and the fact that I called things by different names. The regular teacher did nothing to intervene and so for several weeks, a group of girls would purposely tear my stockings to bits at every recess. I was terrified, missing my extended family in Wales, and certain that everything was my fault for being different.  I began to see myself as the kids saw me… oddball who was not worthy of their friendship.

And then the substitute teacher showed up.

Noticing the teasing, she took an interest in me, asking about my life in England and about my perceptions of America. The next day she asked that I tell the class about England and about my family in Wales. And she invented a game where my fellow students had to guess what the words that I used for things meant here in this country.  A biscuit was actually a cookie.  The boot of a car was the trunk.  The winner was assigned to be my friend at recess.

At recess that day, my stockings survived. Instead of taunting, the kids started asking me questions about England. I began to see myself as someone who mattered. Someone who had a unique self that even I could like.

The lesson in this story is that kids learn who they are through what others, especially adults, choose to see in them.

Some of us are lucky to have parents who teach us to believe in our best selves; who become our biggest champions. For these kids, it is still important for them to be surrounded by other adults who reinforce that belief.

But it is even more important for those of us who don’t have that parental support.  Changing parental work patterns are transforming childhood for growing numbers of kids, particularly those whose parents no longer earn enough to lift their families out of poverty and as a result are working longer and longer hours. Kids are spending critical periods of the day with adults other than their parents.

The quality of these interactions can change the game for kids, positively or negatively. At Coaching Corps, our volunteer coaches are trained to see the best in every child, and then to help the kids see it in themselves. Coaches can nurture the potential in every young person by helping them to recognize talents that they didn’t know were there. Through a season of sports, our coaches can become game changers for the kids who need it the most.

The research is clear and undisputed.  A positive, affirming relationship with a caring adult is the most important thing we can give young people to help them deal with the hand that life has dealt them.

The good news is that each of us, no matter what role we play in a child’s life; teacher, neighbor, uncle, aunt, sports coach, a member of a faith community, can change the game for a child simply by believing in them and helping them believe in their best self.

Like my substitute teacher did for me.

And it doesn’t have to take long.  I only saw that teacher for a week.

So ask yourself today: who was your game changer? We all have one.

Now, most importantly, ask yourself; “whose game changer am I going to be?

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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


Boys & Girls Club of Central Florida

City of Orlando Athletics

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A Place Called Home


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Boys & Girls Club of Venice

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Cambridge Community Center

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Oak Square YMCA

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