Richmond uses its talent to raise money for the Half-Steppers track and field team
on November 4, 2010
Coaches Eric Avery, Johnny Holmes, Dedan Ji Jaga and Tony Bryant stand on the Kennedy High School blacktop inside a tall chain-link fence on a cold and windy Saturday morning. In front of them are several members of the Richmond Half-Steppers Amateur Athletic Union track team: 11 girls and one boy starting early training for spring meets. The training focuses on physical and mental conditioning.
Along with doing a lot of hard work and training, the team also needs to raise funds to get itself to the national competition in New Orleans.
The group started in 1967 when a group of girls at Kennedy High School asked student supervisor Johnny Holmes if he would organize a girls’ track team. He agreed to coach but said he would not tolerate any “half-stepping.” He continued to coach 40 Bay Area kids ages three to 17 every year. When asked why he feels this is important to Richmond, he replies, “Most of these kids don’t have a father in the home, so we are their male role models.” He adds, “I had a desire to see these kids, who otherwise might be getting into trouble, to go on and get scholarships.”
Former Half-Stepper Charonda Williams went on to Arizona State University where she broke several school records in the 200-meter dash and made it to the semi-finals in the 2008 Olympics. According to Holmes, Charonda isn’t the only success story. The former team counts among its alumni 50 national champions, seven NFL players and many professionals, including an Oakland judge.
Avery took over as head coach 12 years ago. He retired from his job as a youth counselor at a detention center and wanted to do something to help kids in Richmond before they got into trouble. “I’ve seen so many good people get caught up in drugs and crime and it’s not their fault,” he says. “It’s this world that twists folks.”
On the blacktop today, no one gets off easy—not even one of the youngest runners out this morning in the cold.
He has tears running down his cheeks and is holding his side.
“Stop your crying,” says Avery. “What hurts? Is your side cramping?”
The boy nods. The girls laugh.
“How old are you, son?” asks Avery.
“Seven,” says the boy.
“Well now, you’re seven and you’re already out of shape,” says Avery. “Coach Holmes, can you come and rub this cramp out for him?” he asks.
After a minute the boy rejoins the line of athletes for more conditioning.
Next, Coach Avery instructs the group to stand in formation and look straight ahead for one full minute. He starts over once because one of the kids looks at him. And again because someone talks.
“When we tell you something, we gotta trust you are going to do it. Good job,” says Coach Avery.
In March the Half-Steppers will begin competing in track meets in the Bay Area and Northern California. Toward the end of the season, the team runs in the Track City Classic International meet held at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
The Half-Steppers are constantly trying to maintain the funding they need for entry fees, gear and travel costs. According to Coach Avery, the club never turns kids away because they can’t afford to participate, so the coaches rely on donations from individuals and organizations to keep the club going. Coach Avery and Coach Holmes both say they have paid out of their own pockets many times when donations fell short.
Down the street on Cutting Blvd., the City of Richmond is building a track where the club can practice and hold meets. Fees from visiting teams will help bring in money for the Half-Steppers. The track is scheduled to be finished early in 2011. Every year, parents and coaches organize a talent show to raise funds for uniforms, shoes, entry fees and a trip to the National Junior Olympics Championships. The national competition is being held in New Orleans next August and Avery says it will cost around $30,000 to send all 35 kids to the week-long event. The talent show usually brings in around $8,000 and the rest of the $30,000 needed comes from individuals and the coaches themselves.
A few years ago, the team rode 38 hours on a Greyhound bus to attend nationals in Des Moines, Iowa. “We were exhausted and the kids didn’t do very well at the competition the first few days, but as the week went on, it got better,” says Coach Avery. “After all the work to raise money and get to nationals, I just wanted to hear our names over the loud speaker. That’s it.”
The talent show fundraiser is November 6th at 1:00 p.m. at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium. Tickets are $10 and are sold at Richmond, Kennedy and El Cerrito High Schools; Jones and Harris Records; and the Richmond Recreation Complex. For more information, call (510) 478-6783 or (510) 620-6788.
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