on November 18, 2010
On any typical school day at Kennedy High, from dawn to dusk, you’ll find Coach Mack Carminer fulfilling a role he believes he was put on earth to play.
“Luck, chance and fate,” he says, brought him to the school to work as head coach for the junior varsity football and basketball teams, and to serve as academic liaison for the sports programs.
Playing sports was Mack’s ticket out of Richmond when he was young. After graduating from Kennedy, he won a full scholarship to play football at the University of Nevada. “Staying here, a lot of people end up being a statistic,” Mack said. “That’s the one thing I didn’t want.”
But unlike many who leave, Mack chose to come back and work with young people to make his hometown a better place.
“Mack doesn’t get rich at Kennedy, but he gives it his all like he’s making six figures,” says Roxanne Brown-Garcia, Kennedy’s principal. “If you’re at Kennedy it’s because you choose to be there—you have passion and you believe in what’s happening, and that’s Coach Mack.”
A few miles away, at Nevin Community Center in central Richmond, another labor of love is taking place. Ui Bal is passionate, strong-willed, and well-organized—three qualities that led city staff to appoint her as Nevin’s director, charged with revamping a place that was in dire need of reform.
“In the first week I was here none of the kids wanted to go outside because they were scared and didn’t want to get shot,” Bal said. “I have a strong belief in creating an environment for youth to feel free to be who they are and creating a space where they feel safe and secure.”
Bal, the first in her family to go to college, also got a full athletic scholarship. She played softball at California State University, Northridge.
“When I was young I knew that a scholarship would get me out; my parents started me [in sports] at a very young age,” Bal said. “It was important to get out because of the education factor.”
Both she and Mack opted for colleges that were distant enough for them to fully experience independence but close enough that they could come home often. But subconsciously, both knew a return to Richmond was inevitable.
“In my heart I knew I had to come back, it was only a matter of time,” said Mack, who stayed in Nevada for 13 years coaching football after graduating with a major in physiology and a minor in human development and family studies. “I wasn’t fulfilled in what I was doing and knew I would feel more fulfilled being at home helping my kids in the community.”
As he walks through the grounds of Kennedy High, it’s easy to see that his instincts led him in the right direction. “What’s going on with y’all, fellas?” he said to a group of teenage boys who shouted his name from several feet away. Just before that, he gave the remainder of his sandwich to a student who said she hadn’t had lunch that day.
“For some reason the kids are drawn to Coach Mack,” Mack said. “I don’t know why, I’m just really honest with them and I think they really see that.”
Mack prides himself on having revamped an afterschool study program for kids who play sports, creating a space where they can study and giving them an opportunity to earn extra credit. He hopes to expand it to kids who aren’t involved in sports, as well.
“I create a memory here every day,” Mack said. “I’m trying to build a structure and stepping stone to manhood, teaching the kids different techniques to overcome adverse situations rather than just fighting and cursing or yelling.”
When Bal returned to Richmond, she thought she was just taking a summer job, at the Disabled Peoples Recreation Center (DPRC).
“I fell in love with what I did there and just ended up staying there—for nine years. I realized I’m good with kids and even better with kids with disabilities,” Bal said.
During her time at the DPRC, she received offers of several other jobs, including one as assistant director for intramural sports at UCLA. This would have meant almost tripling her pay.
“My family was trying to push me to go but I turned it down because I loved the kids that I worked with, I just loved what I did,” she said.
Since taking over as director of the Nevin Community Center this fall, Bal has revamped all the programming the center offers.
“Nothing has happened here [at the center] within the two months I’ve been here whereas there was a serious incident even five days before I got here,” Bal said.
When Bal and Mack returned and began working with youth, they found a culture that was tougher than the one they grew up in.
“Youth are more defensive and aggressive now than they were before,” Bal said.
“When I came back the kids weren’t focused on being kids—they are indulging in adult activities way too early compared to when I was growing up,” Mack said.
“That’s why I love what I’m doing because I have a direct correlation with what happens in our community everyday just by the small numbers of kids we keep off the streets and on the football field,” he added.
Mack and Bal represent a select few who beat the odds, receiving an education by virtue of their talents and dedication to sports. Their passion, drive and love for the young people they work with represent a crucial contribution to building a better city.
“These kids are young and think that they’ve been through a lot but they haven’t seen how far they can actually go until they have been pushed to a certain point,” Mack said.
Every day, he and Bal try to push them to that point—and beyond.
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