The idea was to run a free lacrosse clinic for Baltimore City middle school girls. Simple enough, right? We knew we would have some great participants. Our Johns Hopkins women’s lacrosse team has a wonderful relationship with Commodore John Rodgers School through our involvement with Harlem Lacrosse – Baltimore. The original Harlem Lacrosse is a school-based non-profit organization that changes the life trajectories of at-risk youth through daily academic support, leadership training, mentoring, college counseling and lacrosse instruction.
Harlem Lacrosse – Baltimore was launched in the fall of 2014 with Commodore John Rodgers School and our Blue Jays couldn’t wait to get involved. Since that time, we have held mentoring and tutoring sessions, included our Commodore John Rodgers students in camps and clinics and been involved in many service activities with them.
As a collegiate lacrosse coach, I have been fortunate to join in on a number of community service events with my team. I have traveled as far away as Shiprock, New Mexico to participate in an amazing Native Vision Sports and Life Skills Camp for over 800 Native-American children from more than 25 tribes. Little did I know one of the most powerful days of my life would take place three miles from our campus.
Earlier this fall our team hosted a “Laxing and Learning with the Blue Jays” free clinic on a Sunday at Du Burns Arena and turf field in Baltimore City. We had over 50 inner city middle school girls attend. Our goal was to work with the girls not only on lacrosse skills, but on leadership, communication, teamwork and the importance of good body language, a great smile and a strong handshake. We were all set… STX donated sticks and equipment for us to use, we had our stations all planned out and the Blue Jays were full of energy and excitement to pass on to our participants.
My brother Keith, who runs Du Burns Arena and helped us organize the entire event, suggested inviting a Baltimore City Police Officer he knew to say hi and serve as a role model. Officer Verlillian Githara showed up at the event a little before 9am as the participants were gathering on the field.
It was her presence that made the day incredibly powerful – but it didn’t start out that way.
When she first arrived, the middle schoolers were timid, unsure and very wary of her. This past year and a half has been rough on the city of Baltimore and our police department and tensions are still high. Officer Githara sensed this and immediately flashed a warm smile and jumped right into the lacrosse drills. She showed her vulnerability in learning a new sport and asked the youngsters for help. Our Blue Jays picked up on the initially tense atmosphere and engaged with Officer Githara and the girls and created a bridge between them with big smiles and positive energy. The youngsters slowly started to interact with Officer Githara. She was high-fiving and giving out hugs to those who were willing. Others started to get more comfortable. She was in full police uniform completely engaged in all of the drills and teamwork activities with everyone. She was building trust. It was priceless.
I asked Officer Githara if she would come into the Du Burns Arena and help us with our empowerment, communication and body language session. She headed right in and within minutes had the middle school participants and my players chatting it up with her about the importance of a strong handshake, good eye contact and a great smile.
She addressed the entire group right before lunch – sharing with them her pride in being a Baltimore City Police Officer – her desire to help the girls, their families and the Baltimore community in any way she could. She talked about her difficult days growing up and you could hear a pin drop as she spoke about her challenging upbringing, her time in the military and now as a police officer. She received loud applause, tons of smiles and built even more trust in a matter of minutes.
Throughout lunch, every time I looked, there was another middle schooler talking with Officer Githara. Several young girls shared with my players that after spending time with her, they too wanted to be police officers.
As I reflected on that morning, I realized how powerful the interaction really was. I realized that bridges had been built, trust had been gained and acceptance had been achieved.
What I witnessed that day was an unintended, but incredibly impactful, consequence of a collegiate lacrosse team, young inner city girls and a Baltimore City Police officer opening their hearts to each other to engage in lacrosse and life activities.
I have a greater appreciation for our men and women in uniform and all that they do to support our communities.
I have a tremendous sense of pride in my team and how big their hearts are.
Most significantly, I have an overwhelming sense of hope derived from those 50 inner city middle school girls who showed their willingness to step out of their comfort zone, learn a new sport, make some new friends and let people who care about them into their world.
As coaches, we can use lacrosse as a vehicle to teach countless life lessons and open doors that otherwise seemed closed. That day I witnessed first-hand doors being opened between 50 middle schoolers and a Baltimore City police officer who is charged with keeping them safe.
What a day. What an incredibly powerful day.