Meet the youth lacrosse program that works to encourage South L.A. students

Harlem Lacrosse LA is a nonprofit focusing on bringing the sport of lacrosse to underserved communities. Programs are in place in South L.A., Compton, and Inglewood. (Photo: Harlem Lacrosse LA)

A group of middle school students gathered in a classroom on a Tuesday afternoon to work on their homework. They were writing essays and working on math assignments. Tutors were on hand.

But this is no ordinary after-school tutor session. It’s lacrosse practice.

Harlem Lacrosse LA is a nonprofit working to enrich Los Angeles youth by introducing lacrosse to students living in underserved communities.

“Harlem Lacrosse’s mission is to take students who are in underserved areas at schools that are usually far behind grade level,” said Marissa Hewitt, the program’s regional director. “ … [We] attack their academics, athletics and social-emotional learning — using lacrosse as a hook.”

Their Los Angeles programs are based in Compton, Inglewood and South Los Angeles — communities that have large black and Latino populations, and are not well represented in organized lacrosse programs.

The sport of lacrosse is largely white. Data from NCAA shows that in the 2017–18 school year, an average of nearly 83 percent of all Division I lacrosse athletes were white. In comparison, 2.7 percent of these athletes were black and 2.6 percent were Latino.

In South L.A., Harlem Lacrosse LA runs a program at the ICEF View Park Preparatory Charter Middle School in the Hyde Park neighborhood. More than 40 students are enrolled at this location his season, with 25 boys and 15 girls.

The program at ICEF View Park implements a school-based model. This means that Harlem Lacrosse LA program directors serve as the team coaches after school and spend the day with the students on campus.

Program directors are responsible for recruiting players for the team. They keep an eye out for students they feel may benefit from playing for Harlem Lacrosse LA. Their access to the campus helps them reach students who otherwise may not be exposed to the program.

Their role on campus also helps to build their relationships with the students.

“I think that we have an opportunity in an after-school program that also reaches kids throughout their school day to influence them on a slightly deeper level,” said Tim Jenkins, the program director for the boys team. “So, we have these reps for two or three hours after school and we can reinforce the lessons that we teach in the after-school period during school, throughout the day.”

For twice a week after school, the students and program directors walk one mile to the ICEF Home Office, where study hall and practice are held.

“I help them not only on the field, but … in the classroom,” said Lavita Jones, a coach and tutor at the ICEF View Park program. “We hold study halls and we are all about their academics. We want the players to have a great academic record. We help them with any type of extra intervention that they need.”

Before heading out to the field, program directors talk to players about a social-emotional skill they will be focusing on during practice. Some skills include positive habits, teamwork, growth mindset and trust.

Hewitt said that lacrosse is a great sport to develop social-emotional skills because of its difficulty.

“Lacrosse is kind of hard. It takes a lot of time to learn how to throw and catch a lacrosse ball with a lacrosse stick. Because of that, there is so much early failure,” Hewitt said. “It gives our program directors and our coaches so many opportunities to teach the persistence and the ability to pick yourself up even when you’re frustrated and your task is difficult.”

The group has been able to impact youth through the help of other organizations.

LA2050, a philanthropic organization, recently donated $35,000 to Harlem Lacrosse LA for being an organization that inspires Los Angeles to learn.

LA2050 has also awarded grants to Homeboy Industries, LA Kitchen and Youth Movement Against Alzheimer’s.

“We work really hard and fundraise money,” said Hewitt. “We’ve been very fortunate to get a lot of donations. We make great local partnerships.”

These partnerships allow the program to be free of cost to the players. In October, for example, the University of Southern California women’s lacrosse team donated equipment to the Harlem Lacrosse LA program in Compton.

“We outfit every player with up-to-date, legal, certified equipment. They get game uniforms, pinnies and the coaches get whatever they need to run practice,” Hewitt said.

Harlem Lacrosse LA provides many additional playing opportunities and fun field trips at no cost, such as lacrosse tournaments, scrimmages, college visits and beach days.

With the recent donation from LA2050, Hewitt is hopeful that Harlem Lacrosse LA can reach more communities, as well as strengthen current programs.

“Every partnership and grant helps us do more to provide school-based youth development and to continue serving our mission of helping each Harlem Lacrosse participant find their own personal pathways to success,” Hewitt said.