This post was written by Denali Johnson, a previous member of our team.
Coaching an inner city girls lacrosse team is one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of my life. It has taught me patience, gratitude, and the importance of small successes. The team I work with is comprised mostly of African American girls, ages 10-14, who reside in the North Park Hill area. Twice a week, we practice with as many as four other teams on the same field. All of our equipment is donated.
We begin practice with a warm-up lap, stretching, and some light conditioning. We work on field position, game sense, and stick skills, just like any other team. But I sense that other teams in our league don’t have frequent police car drive-bys. I am all but certain they aren’t regularly interrupted by a neighborhood fight that the entire team dashes off to watch. Many don’t have to worry about their girls getting the right nutrition or being able to find transportation to practice and games. And I’m pretty sure they don’t have kids whose families struggle daily with gang violence, incarceration, and substance abuse.
Unfortunately, the magnitude of life challenges my team members faces are not unlike the challenges faced by hundreds of thousands of other Colorado youth living in similar situations. Our state may lead the nation in many ways, but not when it comes to ensuring all of our children have the opportunity for a healthy and successful life. We are 38th in the nation for enrolling our adolescents in health insurance coverage, and ranked 20th and 30th respectively for our rates of teen smoking and binge drinking. Colorado's child poverty rate has increased since 2008 and there are currently 194,000 children living in poverty. When you look closely at the data you find that African American children in Colorado live in poverty at a rate that is four times higher than Caucasian children. In fact, minority children fare worse on almost every indicator; in Colorado, African American and Hispanic students are twice as likely to drop out of high school as their white counterparts.
Overcoming the challenges of poverty, violence, and unhealthy behavior is difficult for my girls as it is for other young Coloradans. For some of my players though, lacrosse is their ticket to a better life. It keeps them focused on schoolwork and grades so they are academically eligible to play. They learn to eat better so they have the good energy they need to keep up and play hard. Some of my players even earn scholarships to attend out-of-state summer camps--an exciting reward for their hard work. Seeing these successes is a huge victory, and we celebrate them as a team.
My experience coaching these amazing girls has helped me understand the potential of all children and what they need to reach that potential. While Denver City Lax is making a difference in important ways, Colorado’s kids need more. Children’s lives are multifaceted and they need support from every angle. Families, communities, teachers, coaches, and state leaders must all work together and share responsibility if we are to ensure that our kids have the opportunity to succeed.