As players of the highly regarded Servite High School soccer team volunteer to assist the nonprofit organization Higher Ground Youth & Family Services by working with at-risk youth, it is a world away from playing in the ultra-competitive Trinity League or enjoying the comfort of the Friars’ home field on high-performance synthetic turf.
“It’s kind of a culture shock for some of our guys, because it’s a totally different place,” says 2015 Servite graduate J.T. Cook, who helps teach the youth the rules and skills of the game, but most importantly “we try to role-model how we think these kids should live their life.”
Cook, the CIF Southern Section Division I and Trinity League co-MVP, as well as the Orange County Player of the Year, serves with a handful of teammates, including fellow seniors Andrew Martinez, John Pham and team manager Ckyrro Carlos.
“If [the youth] are having fun playing soccer, then we can talk to them and we try to connect with them by the way we act,” says Cook, who is passing on his Servite leadership role as he prepares to enter Saint Louis University in Missouri, where he will continue his soccer career.
Servite is one of 19 educational institutions that fuels Higher Ground with volunteers in a variety of sports. Higher Ground’s goal is to empower youth through educational, athletic, social and leadership experiences to further positive growth.
“We do this daily by providing a free after-school program and summer camp,” Higher Ground Director of Operations Cheryl Robertson says. “Not only does this physically keep the youth off the streets and away from gangs, drugs and other negative influences, it exposes the youth to opportunities, learning experiences and positive role models. Our mentors work in small groups and one-on-one to guide the youth to make better choices to positively affect their body, mind and spirit.”
Higher Ground was launched in 2012 by businessman Joe Baldo, who initially asked for volunteers in a church bulletin at St. Martin de Porres Church in Yorba Linda, where he is a parishioner.
“Although Joe started out with most of his volunteers coming from our Catholic church, people from many different churches and denominations are now board members, coaches and volunteers,” fellow St. Martin de Porres parishioner Maureen Williams says.
After 30 years in the communications business, Baldo started his second career – volunteering at Juvenile Hall in Orange County, leading Bible studies, Communion services and spending many hours each week counseling, and listening to, incarcerated youth. Baldo also began working with at-risk teenagers in the streets of Anaheim and Santa Ana, and eventually started Higher Ground.
“By 2012, I knew that these misdirected kids needed a place to go to, people to properly guide them and activities which would help them toward the right direction,” says Baldo, whose organization partners with several institutions and nonprofits, including Chapman University, Anaheim City School District, Anaheim Union School District, the City of Anaheim, Anaheim Resort Transportation, Second Harvest Food Bank and Angels Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI).
The Higher Ground Angels RBI League gives local boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 12 the opportunity to play baseball while learning important character and life skills. About eight teams of 16 kids are formed each year. Higher Ground has been associated with Angels RBI since 2013. This season games are played at Olive Street and Palm Lane elementary schools in Anaheim on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.
In addition to soccer and baseball, Higher Ground offers basketball, flag football, ultimate Frisbee, volleyball, martial arts, cheer, dance and baton.
“The participation in sports provides many teachable moments and positive opportunities, including sportsmanship,
positive body image, anger management, one-on-one coaching [and] mentoring, and great exercise in a fun setting,” Robertson says.
For younger children, Higher Ground has developed starter programs to get kids involved in physical fitness. In addition to Higher Ground’s nutrition program, young children are engaged in fun activities to build teamwork and positive habits at an early age. The playground sports programs include kickball, dodgeball, handball, capture the flag, hopscotch and jump rope.
And like many of Higher Ground’s partners, Servite is proud to collaborate. Cook says as many as 30 fellow students participate in the Higher Ground soccer program, which thrills Friars soccer coach Jon Spencer.
“Servite High School is about building faith-filled leaders,” Spencer says. “Leadership is about serving others and setting an example to others. One of the greatest opportunities we have is building leadership through hands-on experience. It is awesome for our soccer program to be involved in giving back to the community. We are really excited about our partnership with Higher Ground in Anaheim.”