PROJECT COACH: Program uses sports to connect with and empower Springfield-area youth

  • Mentor Emma Carlisle-Reske, 24, a Smith College exercise and sports studies graduate student, left, and teen coach Tyla Gervais, 15, of Baystate Academy Charter Public School, share a quiet moment after the elementary school children Gervais works with depart Project Coach at German Gerena Community Magnet School in Springfield. The two quickly formed a unique bond through shared personality traits such as high energy, humor and competitiveness. Through Project Coach, they have developed mutual trust, respect and affection for one another.

  • Teen coach Tyla Gervais, 15, of Baystate Academy Charter Public School, center, looks to pass the basketball Feb. 9, 2018 while running a drill for German Gerena Community Magnet School fourth-graders including Jorge Funez, 10, right, during Project Coach at Gerena in Springfield. The sports-based life skills program empowers teens to be effective leaders. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Gervais reacts to a joke told by Carlisle-Reske during weekly training for Project Coach.

  • Assistant teen coach Gervais goes after the ball while running drills with German Gerena Community Magnet School fourth-graders including Akul Agarwal, 10, right. At back right, teen coach Yessica Alfonso, 17, of Springfield Central High School, looks on.

  • Gervais works on vocalizing positive feedback during a basketball scrimmage under the guidance of Carlisle-Reske. At left, teen coach Alan Pholsook, 15, of Springfield Central High School, and supervising coach Yesenia Valentin, 21, of Springfield Technical Community College, watch the game.

  • Teen coach Tyla Gervais, 15, of Baystate Academy Charter Public School, left, is comforted Feb. 9, 2018 by mentor Emma Carlisle-Reske, 24, a Smith College exercise and sports studies graduate student, at the close of a Project Coach basketball session at German Gerena Community Magnet School in Springfield. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Coach Emma Carlisle-Reske works with German Gerena Community Magnet School fourth-grader Allister Perez, 9, to develop his basketball skills. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Teen coach Tyla Gervais hugs German Gerena Community Magnet School fourth-grader Natalia Rodriguez, 10, before she is picked up following Project Coach. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Academic coach Sonja Imhoof, a senior at Smith College, left, teen coach Isabella Carrasquillo, 14, of Springfield Central High School, second from right, and mentor Emma Carlisle-Reske, 24, a Smith College exercise and sports studies graduate student, far right, huddle to assist teen coach Tyla Gervais, 15, of Baystate Academy Charter Public School, with her homework during one of Project Coach's weekly academic sessions in Seelye Hall at Smith College.

  • Teen coaches Tyla Gervais, 15, of Baystate Academy Charter Public School, back left, and Giovani Santiago, 14, of Springfield Central High School, debrief with their group of German Gerena Community Magnet School students at the end of a Project Coach basketball session. Below, Gervais, left, is comforted by mentor Emma Carlisle-Reske. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • At right, Gervais walks German Gerena Community Magnet School fourth-graders Natalia Rodriguez, left, and Nelson Pagan, right, both 10, from the gym to the cafeteria where they'll be picked up after learning basketball skills from Gervais.

Published: 2/22/2018 10:43:02 AM

Conga lines, rubber chickens, shouted instructions and laughter are probably not the norm in most classrooms, especially at Smith College. But last Tuesday, groups of high school students raced around a Seelye Hall room, some forming a looping human train while others frantically tossed the plastic poultry back and forth.

Despite the fun, goofy nature of the exercise, it didn’t feel out of place, even when compared to the tough statements students were asked to agree or disagree with in their very next activity:

“When kids fail in school, it’s totally their fault.” “College should be free.” “The schools in my community serve me well.”

Those activities were part of Project Coach, a program that uses sports to connect with and empower Springfield-area youth. Founded in 2002, Project Coach pairs elementary school children from the city’s public schools with teenager coaches — and mentors — in their communities. Those high schoolers are themselves paired with Smith College students and faculty, who facilitate their development as community leaders.

Tyla Gervais, 15, is one of those teenagers, her quiet and reserved interactions with this reporter standing in sharp contrast to her playful and affectionate relationship with Smith College graduate student Emma Carlisle-Reske, who is nine years her senior.

“Emma is the type of people that you connect with them easily,” Tyla, who attends Baystate Academy Charter Public School, said with a little grin.

“She’s very calm — well, no,” Tyla added before stopping herself, laughing in mutual recognition with Emma that “calm” doesn’t describe either of them. Tyla, after all, is a leader on her school’s track and field team, and Emma is an assistant rowing coach at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “She’s not calm. She’s just Emma.”

Tyla and Emma met last year during a Project Coach event, and since then have developed a close relationship obvious to anyone observing the smiles, hugs and affectionate side-eyes they playfully shoot toward one another.

“When I was in high school, I was exactly like Tyla,” Emma said — competitive and energetic, with some of the same feelings about school itself.

In addition to weekly academic coaching at Smith, Tyla and her peers take part weekly in a coaching and life-skills seminar, a coach training with Smith staff and students and an after-school program for elementary school students where the high schoolers put their training into action.

“It’s very supportive, they’re very warm and welcoming,” Tyla said of Project Coach. Just minutes earlier, Emma had reacted encouragingly to Tyla’s news that, after a competitive application process, she had been accepted to take a tour of the country’s historically black colleges and universities, where she hopes to study psychology one day.

Sam Intrator, one of the program’s co-founders and an education and child study professor at Smith, said that society so often views teenagers as complicated, vulnerable, menacing, but rarely as leaders. Project Coach, he said, seeks to do the opposite.

“We’re never disappointed,” Intrator said. “When you ask teens to show up for younger children, they do so with magnificent elegance.”

“It’s a social justice program in a tracksuit,” said the program’s director, Jo Glading-Dilorenzo. “They are building identity as athletes — kids who belong to a team that is about something more than just themselves.”

Baked into the Project Coach model is a type of cascading apprenticeship, Intrator said. The program pairs teenagers like Tyla with older mentors like Emma, who help them become mentors themselves to younger children through the act of coaching. In a partnership with Springfield Public Schools, students get credit for their work.

The teenagers’ leadership skills are on full display when the Project Coach teenagers run their after-school program for elementary school students. Watching Tyla and her peers coach younger students, “shy” and “reserved” are the last words that come to mind.

“I feel like it makes me more responsible, more vocal,” Tyla said.

Anyone trying to find the group of students needed only follow the sound of delighted screams and bouncing basketballs down the hallways of German Gerena Community Magnet School last Friday evening. There, in the school’s gymnasium, Project Coach teenagers lead engaged young kids in intricate passing games and drills.

The same teenage students who on Tuesday were flying around their Smith classroom in a conga line are now difficult to distinguish from their adult counterparts. They challenge the elementary school kids to improve their skills, encouraging them with smiles and honesty. They sit them down to explain concepts, organize activities for them and receive the same reverent looks they just days prior gave their own older mentors.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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