Meet the Family: Gio Andraca

Mexico City is where my story begins, and not simply because I was born there - the culture and values I was surrounded with are still a part of who I am today. Like several of our Upper Ninety students, my life changed in a single moment and I was not given the chance to say if it was a good or bad change. When you are young you cannot decide where or when you move because you have to go where your parents take you. I remember that I had just finished the sixth grade in Mexico and that is a big change in and of itself, going from elementary to middle school. The challenges I faced included a new school with double or triple the number of students, classes were more difficult, and I needed to make new friends. I was nervous but excited for this next step in my life when all of a sudden my mom told me that we were moving to the United States. 

To put it into perspective, picture waking up in your home country where everything is familiar and safe. The following day, you find yourself in a foreign country where nothing makes sense and everything is very unfamiliar. When I arrived in Austin, Texas, I did not know anything about the United States. Not only was it my first time traveling outside of Mexico, but it was also  my first time being surrounded by people who spoke a language of which I did not know a single word. 

There are so many new and difficult experiences one faces when moving to a new country. On top of starting in a new school with a brand new language, you have to get revaccinated because the vaccines from your country are not accepted here (I did not like that process at all). My parents decided that I should repeat the sixth grade so that I could have time to learn English. I was a little nervous on my first day of school because it was going to be my first time interacting with kids my age in the U.S. On my first day, the principal took me to my classroom and when I walked in everyone stared at me. The teacher introduced me to the class, and I remember smiling a little when I heard them speak in Spanish. My new classmates spoke Spanish as well, which certainly helped my nerves. 

That day I met a friend who taught me how to eat at the new school. I did not know that the school had a cafeteria and that you had to hurry to be one of the first ones in line. In Mexico there was no cafeteria in middle school, so you would go play games outside or buy something to eat at one of the little concessions stands. It took me a long time to adapt to this new school and its different daily practices.

My parents would pick me up after school and ask me how my day was. I would tell them that it was good, even though I always had this weird sensation of not feeling comfortable or completely happy. I was in the ESL program, but only two of the seven teachers were bilingual. To be honest, the first six months I did not understand anything at all because of the language barrier. 

Nevertheless, I never had any problems passing my classes even if I was not an A student. In order to play soccer for the school, you had to pass your classes. I noticed that several of my classmates had a hard time doing well in their studies, but they would give it their best effort in order to suit up for the soccer team. They did not like doing homework or paying attention in class in the same way that I did. I was not one to be late or to skip school like many of my classmates. From not knowing a single word to having the ability to understand most conversations, my English saw great improvements. The most difficult part was that I understood much more than I was able to speak.

Another huge transition for me was entering high school. At that stage it was very similar to my middle school in that most of the students were Hispanic and I could get away with only speaking Spanish. I was in the ESL program my freshman year and at its conclusion I had to take an English test. Those results cleared me to leave the ESL program, but I did not feel confident in my English speaking abilities at all. 

On the weekends, I played with my soccer team and that same year I finally made a close friend who was in the twelfth grade. We grew very close and have remained so ever since. This was important for me, because I still felt out of place in the United States and missed who I used to be back home in Mexico. In high school, I only had to speak English with the teachers and the rest of the time I communicated in Spanish. 

Near the end of the 10th grade, I was getting bored with high school and I decided to talk to my school counselor. I told her that I wanted to graduate early, and she subsequently checked the classes that I had already taken and what I needed in order to graduate. She said that I could do it, and detailed the next year for me; I would be in 11th grade for the first semester and in the 12th grade during the second. 

It was not until the 11th grade that I truly came to understand the meaning of my GPA and its significance when applying to a university. I was told that the university looks at the GPA, if I participated in clubs at school, if I had any community service hours, and my application essay. Luckily, I had good grades because I did not participate in anything other than my own soccer interests. 

I would play soccer before my classes, at lunchtime, and after school - basically anytime I could play, I would. I even preferred not to eat lunch so I could have time to play. I decided to join the high school team, while ignoring the suggestions of others to skip class because I valued my opportunity. I had friends who smoked behind the school, but they knew that I did not smoke and so they never invited me to join. 

Young people know the difference between right and wrong, they just need a reason to choose what is right for their lives. I applied to UT, Texas State, and ACC and gained acceptance to all three schools. I decided to attend UT because it was close to my home. Most of my Hispanic classmates aspired to simply finish high school, go to work, and get married, but I knew that I wanted a different future for myself. Many of my classmates never pursued education past high school. Choosing to attend a university was not only different from my friends paths, but I was also the very first in my family to go to college.

Up until the moment I started my college classes, I never had much contact with people who spoke English as their native language. At the start of my college journey, everything about the University of Texas was extremely intimidating for me. I had a hard time speaking to anyone at school except for my counselor, because she was so kind and encouraging. On the first day of class, it seemed many of the students did not know each other but quickly began to interact and make friends. For me, it was very difficult to be that open and comfortable with people who spoke so quickly and confidently in English. 

My first three months at the university were so difficult that I decided to withdraw. For about two months afterwards, I felt lost and did not know what to pursue. Finally, I decided to apply to Austin Community College with the intention of taking ESL classes to hopefully improve my English and my confidence. I completed three courses in that area, but I did not feel that my passing grades equated to me becoming proficient. 

In light of having no support at home or quality advice about which direction I should go with my degree, I lost two years taking a random assortment of courses. Soon I became tired and I thought seriously about quitting school. Thankfully, I talked to my ACC counselor, who advised me to pursue an Associate’s Degree in Social Work. It ultimately took me four years to complete it.

At this point in my journey, I believed I should pursue a degree in social work and use my love of soccer to help others. After returning to the University of Texas, I ended up changing my major to physical culture and sports. My return to UT initially felt similar to my first time there and I was a little afraid that I would repeat my previous experience. Many times I felt so alone because I could not understand why I struggled to make friends at a school of 50,000 students. This time around, however, I did not give up and consistently conquered the temptation when it arose. Thanks to the people who had become close to me, I did not quit. 

One of my most discouraging interactions in my classes happened when I went to talk to a professor about material I was struggling to understand. She proceeded to tell me that I didn’t belong at UT and that I should be in a different school - one that had easier classes and slower-paced curriculum. She went on to say that since I was paying for UT it was ultimately my decision, but she recommended leaving. This discouraged me so much and made me think that maybe I should not be there. I am so grateful that, in the end, I decided I could do the hard work needed to graduate. You know, the funny thing is that she was at my graduation. I do not know if she remembered me, but I remembered her and her inability to see my strengths and passions. 

There will always be people who try and speak negative opinions into your life, trying to place their own fears and disbelief on your hopes and dreams. Our job is to surround ourselves with those who see our abilities and strengths in spite of our weaknesses. My advice to all those who are in middle and high school who do not speak English, or do not speak it fluently, is to try with all your ability to learn. Fluency has a significant impact on your pursuit of your goals and dreams. If you take my advice, you will not have to go through the long difficult path that brought me to where I am today. 

My message to Upper Ninety students is this: With the support and empowerment you have from your teammates and coaches, you can finish high school, go to college, and fulfill your dreams. Help is available, and all you have to do is ask. This country is full of opportunities, but everything depends on your dedication and pursuit of a goal. If I did it, you can as well. You are not alone. If you believe and work hard, you will experience success. Nothing in this life is easy. If it were easy, we would all do it!

My motivation comes from my family, my UT counselor Jessica, my friend Francisco, and Kaitlin Swarts for giving me the opportunity to be a part of her amazing Upper Ninety family. My parents taught me to be grateful, so I want to thank them for not giving up on me and always supporting me. One of the best aspects of college for me was being part of the University of Texas women’s soccer team. They were very kind to me, and I want to thank them for accepting me. If I did not mention anyone else who has helped me along the way, don’t feel sad. I have you in my heart, always. I am here for anyone that needs help, wants to talk, or just wants to kick the ball around. You guys have a friend in me. 

I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes. “It is very true… if we choose a job that we like, we will not have to work a single day of our lives.”  So follow your dreams, no matter how big they are. This is your life. Do what you love to do. Inspire someone and create happiness. Stay humble, work hard, and be kind. It’s fine to fall 1000 times, but what matters is how you get up.

Gio is a graduate of the College of Education at the University of Texas. He is currently an Assistant Coach at Upper Ninety.

Restorative Justice: Preventative, Intervention, or Both?

What is Restorative Justice? This has become one of the questions I have answered the most in the past four and a half months of my internship with Upper Ninety. When I initially heard this term, it sounded a little like a utopian phrase to me. In the United States, we are not familiar with the idea of restoring humanity and dignity to someone who has wronged us. We are strictly a retributive justice system, which means our system focuses on restoring justice by punishing offenders to the same extent of the crime they committed. (Of course, what is an adequate and equal punishment is left up to those in power to identify.) This means that for people who are not in power or allowed an opinion, the scales will always be tipped in the direction of those with the power.

Restorative Justice, on the other hand, comes from a place of connectedness and personal responsibility. Restorative Justice practices and processes are focused on “healing the victim and undoing the hurt; healing the offender by rebuilding his or her moral and social selves; healing communities and mending social relationships” (Wenzel, Okimoto, Feather, and Platow, 2008).

Here at Upper Ninety, we use the term “Team Circles” to describe the circles we run at practice. Team Circles are based on the Restorative Justice Circle model, an indigenous approach to relationship-building and problem-solving that champions equality, justice, and empathy. Our students respond well to this approach and become very protective of the values and guidelines that give them freedom to express themselves and tell their story. For many of our students, Team Circle time serves like an intervention. Many of our students are dealing with or have experienced the very issues and topics we bring to circle for discussion. The students are given a chance to look at issues and scenarios from an introspective place and evaluate how they wish they would have or could have responded or felt. While it is a useful intervention tool, Restorative Justice Circles can also act as a preventative measure for youth.

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This semester I was given the honor of creating and leading our first ever student circle training. The coaches and long-term volunteers took time to look at all of our students and nominate eight students in our program who we believed would benefit the most from this training.  We looked at a range of students, from those who showed amazing leadership abilities, to those with multiple discipline issues. We wanted the circle training to not only be a leadership opportunity, but also a type of preventative measure for some of our students who struggle to respond well to authority figures and structure. We gave the students the ability to accept or decline the training nomination. In the end, we trained four committed students from differing backgrounds, with unique needs and individual strengths.

We used our weekly training days to talk about what it means to be a leader in our communities, and how the practices we utilize in Team Circle can be applied in many different situations and for all types of issues. On top of dissecting the power of being heard and making room for others to be listened to, the students had to come up with topics and questions that we could use in future circles. They worked as a team to decide what kind of circles would work the best in different settings and with different age groups. Each time we met to plan a circle, I watched the students switch from squirming, untamed energy-filled teens, to focused problem-solvers. I am not going to lie and say we never had failed training sessions, especially during STAAR testing week (Any teachers out there feel me?!), but by the end of the semester I saw a shift in their ability to listen and respond with maturity.

The students had the chance to create and co-facilitate Team Circles during our trip to the elementary school that feeds into one of our high schools. They took the planning process very seriously, and when it was time to lead Team Circle with the younger kids, they were amazing. The pride and excitement of being called to step up and have people rely on them to be positive role models was tangible. All you had to do was look at their serious faces and heads held high to realize that in the process of them trying to be role models for younger students, they were changing their own stories. Prevention does not always have to look like scaring kids with horror stories of what could happen if they choose the wrong path. It can look like providing the opportunity for youth who have been told they are destined for failure to stand up and tell their own story with their own words. Maybe youth just need to be told that they can make all the difference in their communities for that breakthrough to happen.

Adrienne is a Program Assistant at Upper Ninety. She is currently a master’s student at the University of Texas School of Social Work.

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Meet the Family: Devon Harris

Through our Meet the Family series, we will introduce a new Upper Ninety staff member so you can get to know us better. This month, meet Program Intern Devon Harris!

My name is Devon Harris, and I am a Program Intern at Upper Ninety. I am a senior Social Work major at the University of Texas at Austin and was thrilled to find Upper Ninety for my senior year internship.

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Upper Ninety allows me to combine my love for soccer and my passion for Social Work as a profession. I chose this line of work because teens are a population that need more support, advocacy, and resources. I feel like it is too often that teens do not have someone that is there to listen and support them in any way they need. Soccer breaks the formal boundaries and allows a deep relationship to be established with each person on the team. The skills that I have acquired serve me in a way that allows me to be flexible in the way and the environment I approach each student in.

I grew up playing soccer and always wanted to find a way to bring it back into my life after I stopped playing in high school. Playing on intramural teams during my first 2 of years of college was not enough but I did not know how to incorporate soccer any more than that. I was told about Sports and Social Work later in my college career but I knew it was something that I needed to discover more about. I actively sought out an internship placement that would allow me to connect with teens through sports and immediately expressed my interest in being placed here.  

I have been able to contribute to different mindfulness games and restorative justice circle topics that we do on the field. I like the Team Circle time because hearing every players response lets me know more about them and it is a time that they get to know me. I also feel like I discover more about myself every time we partake in a circle.

A new initiative that Upper Ninety is incorporating is Facetime; a face to face meeting with each student who is in the program. Facetime allows me to utilize different social work skills as we talk about a variety of topics and engage in different activities. I love doing Facetime at both of our schools because it helps me build a relationship with each player and it is an opportunity to address different challenges that we all face.

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Meet the Family: Alejandro Avellana

Through our Meet the Family series, we will introduce a new Upper Ninety staff member so you can get to know us better. First up: volunteer superstar, Alejandro Avellana!

Q: How did you get involved with Upper Ninety?

Back in January, 2018, Upper Ninety had a fundraising event listed on the website Do512. I browse that site looking for events in and around Austin and the organization's mission stood out to me. I decided to get involved and contacted Kaitlin.

Q: What do you do as a volunteer?

As a volunteer, my main responsibilities involve helping players check in, set up the field/equipment, and assist with ad-hoc tasks such as rounding up students, participating in Team Circle, drills, scrimmages, etc. This semester I've also taken on some responsibilities with visualizing Upper Ninety's student survey and other data.

Q: What’s your favorite part about volunteering with Upper Ninety?

 Apart from getting to play soccer regularly, I really enjoy seeing the players open up during Team Circle. During Circle, we all have the opportunity to talk through issues going on in our lives and reflect on important topics. It is a great way to connect with the students on a more personal level and, even as a facilitator, I regularly learn more about myself by participating.

Q: Tell us about where you come from!

I’m originally from San Antonio, Texas and come from a Spanish speaking household. My mother is the daughter of Cuban refugees and my father emigrated to the US from Mexico after marrying my mom. A good part of my life growing up revolved around playing soccer and it forms a common thread in many of my closest friends over the years.

Q. How do you feel about working with a nonprofit?

In a word, fulfilled. Upper Ninety gives me the amazing opportunity to give back to the local Austin community doing something I love in playing soccer. The students often remind me of myself and the friends I grew up with so I really enjoy being a positive influence in the lives of people growing along similar paths as I did.

 Q: Any last words for your fans?

I love being a part of the Upper Ninety family!

adidas Soccer Day!

These days, lots of companies say they want to "give back," but it can be rare to find one that truly puts their money (and time!) where their mouths are. But adidas Soccer did just that — they showed up and left Upper Ninety with smiles on everyone’s faces.

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A couple of weeks ago, on September 12, a team of representatives from adidas Soccer took time out from their annual regional meeting to come spend the afternoon with Upper Ninety. Arriving with boxes full of gear, the leaders delivered some inspirational words to our students about how sport has the power to change lives. Our students anxiously awaited as they listened in awe, wondering what adidas Soccer might have brought them.

And then, it was time. The representatives started distributing all the goodies from the boxes, as over 60 of our Upper Ninety players from across east Austin waited one by one. adidas Soccer gave each of our students brand new adidas backpacks and beautiful new jerseys, and for everyone they brought some much-needed field equipment, including goals, cones, ball bags, and corner flags!

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Smiles flooded the entire auditorium as the students received their gifts. Afterwards, the adidas team came out to our field at East Austin College Prep to hang out and cheer on the kids as they scrimmaged, excitedly sporting their new team jerseys. What a day!

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As they told our students, adidas Soccer is committed to using the power of their brand, and the power of the sport to change lives. By showing up in our community, getting to know our kids, and investing in their futures, adidas Soccer truly is walking the walk. It is an incredible honor to be able to partner with such a globally renowned company, and we can't wait to see how together, we can continue to change lives through soccer!

Photo credits: Carlos Barron

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Meet Our New Communications Intern, Andrea

Welcome to the Upper Ninety family, Andrea Velgis! Andrea has a passion for advertising/communications and as a senior at UT Austin, she is ready to take over our social media and communications campaigns! Want to know more? Read on.

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1. Where are you from? I’m from the desert town of El Paso, Texas. I was born in San Diego but consider Texas my forever home since we moved here when I was 5.

2. What are you up to now? I just started my last year of college! This is both exciting and scary… I love being an advertising major. The creative aspect of advertising is really intriguing to me because it combines art with psychology.

3. Why were you drawn to intern with Upper Ninety? I’ve always wanted to work for a nonprofit and Upper Ninety allows me to combine my passions for advertising/communications, working with kids, and my love of sports! My previous internship was at Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing where they do public service announcements like “Don’t Drink and Drive” and “Click It Or Ticket” all for the betterment of society. I like the kind of work that has meaning and purpose.

4. When you're not busy studying or working for Upper Ninety, what do you like to do in your free time? I love music, which makes Austin my perfect city! My favorite genre is Texas Blues and my all-time favorite musician is Stevie Ray Vaughan (Would definitely name my first born after him. Kidding. Or am I?) I also play the guitar from time to time. Another hobby of mine is photography. I’ve loved taking photos since I was very young.

5. What's one thing your University of Texas classmates don't know about you? My classmates probably don’t know that when I was 13 years old I visited Japan for three weeks! When I was in kindergarten I had a Japanese best friend and I thought her culture was absolutely fascinating. I spent my whole childhood reading about Japanese culture and when I was old enough, my dad surprised me with a the trip of a lifetime.



Announcing: adidas Soccer Partners with Upper Ninety!

By Kaitlin Swarts, Upper Ninety Founder & CEO

When I was a kid, my dad and I had this ritual. Every year, when I grew out of last year's cleats, he would drive me to the soccer store to find a new pair. And every year, he'd ask the salesperson to bring a pair of adidas Copas out, sized down a size, of course. While we waited, we would admire the clean black cleat with the triple white lines, and my dad would go on about how the Copas are the classic boot. All great soccer players wear Copas, and I should, too. The salesperson would come back with a box of fresh Copas, and every single year, my dad would ask - isn't this the classic boot? The salesperson would agree: yep, the Copa really is the classic boot, the cleat all great soccer players wear. So every single year, without fail, I would try them on, knowing what would come next.

My feet were too narrow. Even sized down one or two sizes, my heels would slip when I ran. The Copa might be the classic boot, the cleat all great soccer players wear, but I couldn't wear them. 

Luckily, adidas made the Predator, the perfect cleat for my non-classic feet. I wore Predators all throughout my club and college career. My final pair, purchased before senior year pre-season (without my dad there to insist on the Copas, first) traveled with me to Argentina where I competed with the Div. III USA team, to San Francisco where I discovered I could play the game for fun after college, and to New York where, playing under the lights of the Brooklyn Bridge, I dreamt of launching Upper Ninety in my hometown of Austin, Texas. 

When I finally traded my beloved Predators in for a new pair, six years after my final college season, I'd been taping them together, and to my feet, every single time I played. Anything to keep them on the field with me.

Why am I telling you this story? I've worn and loved adidas my entire life. When I was a little girl, I would have told you that playing pro as a sponsored adidas athlete would be a dream come true. 

And then I got a phone call from adidas Soccer, letting me know that adidas wants to partner with Upper Ninety in our mission to help students from low-income Austin communities build a foundation for success in high school and beyond. They believe in our work, and they believe in our students. 

As our partner, adidas has committed to support Upper Ninety over the course of one year. This is fully aligned with one of the brand’s core beliefs: Through Sport, adidas Has The Power to Change Lives. “adidas is proud to work in conjunction with Upper Ninety to Change Lives Through Sport in the local community. Our core belief has many parallels with Upper Ninety, one whose purpose is to help students from low-income local communities thrive in high school and beyond. We look forward to partnering with Upper Ninety for the next year and to supporting the growth of the game throughout local communities," said Sebastian Godoy, adidas Representative. The impact of adidas’ support for Upper Ninety will undoubtedly add an additional layer of partnership and added value within the local soccer community. 

adidas choosing to invest in our players--as students, as athletes, and as future leaders of our community--is so much better than anything I could have dreamt up as a young, predator-clad, soccer-loving girl. I can't wait to see the looks on our players' faces the first time they get to suit up in an adidas kit and step on the field to play as a team. I can't wait to tell them that adidas believes in them.

So thank you, adidas. Thank you for outfitting and inspiring me every soccer season since I was five years old. Thank you for making a cleat narrow enough for those of us who just can't swing the Copas. And above all, thank you for believing in the power of soccer to help young people build a foundation for success, on and off the field. Partnering with adidas in our work at Upper Ninety is an honor and truly better than a dream come true. 

Welcome to Team Upper Ninety, Giovanni!

Team Upper Ninety just got even bigger and better, with the hiring of our Program Facilitation Intern Giovanni Andraca! Giovanni has an incredibly inspiring personal story and a fierce passion for the game of soccer. Want to know more? Read on!

1. Where are you from? I was born in Mexico City, and I learned to play soccer with kids in my neighborhood. I moved to Austin when I was in middle school. After high school, I studied at Austin Community College and received an associates degree in Social Work. 

2. What are you up to now? Now, I am a senior at University of Texas studying to earn a degree in Physical Culture and Sports. 

3. Why were you drawn to intern with Upper Ninety? I was drawn to the opportunity at Upper Ninety because I would like to help the kids in the program. I came from a low-income family, and I am the first one to go to college. I have to face a lot of struggles, as many children do. In order to succeed and to achieve your goals, you must believe in yourself and work hard.

4. What is your favorite thing about soccer? The reason that I love playing soccer is that it is a team sport, and I enjoy the team environment. 

5. When you're not busy studying or working for Upper Ninety, what do you like to do in your free time? I work with the University of Texas Women’s Soccer Team as a student manager. Additionally, I am on the staff for the UT summer soccer camps. When I have time, I also work for Super Soccer Stars in Austin. I play soccer in several leagues in the Austin area. 

For more information on Giovanni, check out his bio here.