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.

Upper Ninety Featured on iHeartRadio

In case you missed it:

Over the weekend, Upper Ninety was featured on iHeartRadio stations KASE 101, 96.7 KISS FM, 102.3 The Beat, AM 1300 The Zone, and 98.1 KVET.

 

Click below to hear Upper Ninety founder Kaitlin Swarts explain how we're using soccer as an educational tool to help students from low-income communities thrive.

A huge thank you to Heather from KVET for having us in the studio!

Meet Our Intern!

We are thrilled to announce our newest Upper Ninety team member, Monitoring & Evaluation Intern Elaine Yang! In between crunching data sets, Elaine was kind enough to sit down and answer some questions so we can get to know her better.

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1. Where are you from? I am originally from South Korea. I came to the States at the start of my sophomore year of high school. I lived in Salisbury, Maryland, for three years then moved to Baltimore to attend college, where I studied Psychology and Cognitive Science.  

2. Where are you living now, and what are you up to? I am in Cambridge currently. I came to this city to study how to develop school-based programs and enhance their efficacy through the Prevention Science and Practice program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

3. Why were you drawn to intern with Upper Ninety? I applied to intern at Upper Ninety because of its mission in serving low-income communities by providing a support system that helps students succeed in their lives. I also share its vision in the positive outcome of its strength-based approach, so that students are enabled to learn and enhance their potential success both academically as students, and prospectively as adults. I pursued my application to partake in its mission, bring about its vision, and share the joy in seeing the positive growth in students in the communities in Austin. 

4. What is your favorite thing about Mindfulness?  I find  great value in mindfulness practice because of its demonstrated effect on positive outcomes in many aspects of life across ages. It has helped many regulate and reduce academic stress, improve everyday functioning with increased self-regulation, and increase positivity and satisfaction in life. 

5. When you're not busy studying or working for Upper Ninety, what do you like to do in your free time? I like cooking, so I go grocery shopping at Trader Joe's. I often bring back a bundle of flowers from TJ's since I like brightening up the space in the common areas of my apartment. I also like to lend an ear to those who need someone to listen to their thoughts.

6. What's one thing your HGSE classmates don't know about you? One thing that my HGSE classmates don't know about me is that I lived in Christchurch, New Zealand, for a year when I was 13 years old.

For more information on Elaine, check out her bio here.

What Is Restorative Justice?

Native American activist, poet, musician, and actor John Trudell once stated, “Protect your spirit because you are in the place where spirits get eaten.” I open our restorative circle, full of students of color, with this quote, asking that they reflect upon their experience at an academic institution where a majority of students neither look like them nor act like them.

I then pose the following questions: “Bring someone to the circle who is not physically with us. Who would you like to bring? Why are you bringing them to the circle at this moment? What wisdom can they offer our group?” Students pass the talking piece and offer stories of hope and hopelessness, of grandmas and childhood friends, of home and afar, of culture and history. As we manage the complexities of our lives, from family to school, restorative circles, like the one described above, serve as an essential space for personal and collective healing, reflection, and necessary sustenance.

These circles are an integral part of the toolbox that is Restorative Justice (RJ), a philosophical and practical approach that champions itself upon equity, inclusivity, accountability, community, and the prioritization of relationships above all.

Indigenous Roots of Restorative Justice

Long before RJ became a prominent approach in the Western world, it was first and foremost an Indigenous practice dating back thousands of years. Tribes from Australia to the Americas engaged in RJ or rather, peacemaking efforts in order to strengthen and sustain their culture, their families, and their communities. Today, many tribes continue to employ peacemaking in order to solve disputes, discuss local matters, and promote kinship among their people. 

Common RJ practices of the present, such as the inclusion of a talking piece, marking a space with opening and closing activities, calling ancestors into the circle, as well as principles of unity, solidarity, and interdependency, are traditionally rooted in Native ceremony and customs.

As a Native American woman, I strive to keep my culture alive and vibrant through peacemaking efforts, and I take immense pride in sharing them with you. As you read and engage in RJ yourself, I ask that you acknowledge and appreciate the Indigenous infrastructure upon which it was built.

Jordan (second from the right) serving on a panel for Tribal Justice, a documentary film highlighting the utilization of restorative justice in tribal communities

Jordan (second from the right) serving on a panel for Tribal Justice, a documentary film highlighting the utilization of restorative justice in tribal communities

Restorative Justice in Schools and Youth Organizations

I am sitting in a science classroom, encircled by twenty ninth-graders and one teacher. It is our third consecutive circle where we explore a range of topics from classroom guidelines and discipline to what it means to be an adolescent and how it feels when adults ignore them. Students already know the routine as they depart from their science curriculum and welcome the distinct and unique structure that is RJ. I offer them critical questions like “How will you hold each other accountable in the classroom?” and “What are the purpose of rules?”

Students and the teacher answer the questions, passing the designated talking piece, a tennis ball that they use in their physics demonstrations, from one hand to another. Only the person that holds the talking piece may speak as the the tennis ball represents not only an essential guideline of RJ, but also the common purpose that ties the students and the teacher together. Due to the principles of RJ, every adolescent is given a voice of equal weight to both their peers and the adults in the room, empowering and enabling them to learn about one another, address disagreements, express opinions and beliefs, and ultimately, to build a community of trust and compassion. Students that never speak, finally do, and issues that were never confronted, finally are. After six circle sessions, the group has transformed itself. There is mutual respect, established understanding, and fostered empathy between the students and the teacher, leaving the community better prepared for academics in the classroom, as well as life beyond the school grounds. It is with a restorative approach, where power is shared, vulnerabilities are embraced, and relationships are built, that outcomes like this are possible.

National Education Association, 2014

National Education Association, 2014

In the past, RJ has become a viable alternative in the criminal justice system, seeking to resolve conflicts, provide reconciliation, and attend to both victims and perpetrators in disputes. It is this same approach, of understanding, forgiveness, and compassion, that has since become widely utilized in both schools and youth organizations—much like Upper Ninety. These institutions seek to build a positive, restorative climate with strategies and activities like circles, peer-to-peer mediation, conflict management workshops, social-emotional learning, and time allocated towards building relationships and community.  

Many of these institutions have adopted RJ in an effort to steer youth away from the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term that denotes the manner by which certain students are exiled from the school system and systemically channeled into the prison system. Exile often occurs in the form of detentions, suspensions, expulsions, non-inclusive classrooms, and other forms of punishment and humiliation tactics, including the involvement of actual police officers in school matters. These punitive approaches, like zero-tolerance policies, heavily target youth of color and those with disabilities, further marginalizing these populations and jeopardizing their future trajectories. For example, you’ll see children get suspended for countless days due to minor infractions, missing school and missing their community. When your own school fails to support and accept you, where else do you go?

The Illinois Criminal Justice Authority reports that RJ allows youth to explore their identities, learn pro-social behavior, establish positive relationships, reflect upon one’s actions, engage in critical thinking, and become a valuable member of a community and the larger society. Important skills, such as empathy, listening, problem-solving, and teamwork, are established and further developed in restorative practices. With its positive results RJ has become well-known in education, law, business, and more.

Living Restorative Justice

I leave you with a thought from Rupert Ross, author of Returning to the Teachings: Exploring Aboriginal Justice. In his book, Ross advises that we cannot simply use peacemaking or RJ solely as an approach, rather we must live it and understand it to be “the source of meaning, identity, purpose and fulfillment in life.” RJ is not limited to classrooms, to police departments, or even to soccer fields. Restorative Justice is an all-encompassing philosophy that guides us beyond the boundaries that we know. It is a smile from your coach. It is your loved ones by your side. It is your team supporting you. It is your culture. It is healing. It is loving. It is community.