Coaching Kids for Success in the Sacramento Region
Anthony Viveiros and Marcelo Cruz
When the dismissal bell rings, school kids typically skedaddle. What child wants to attend more classes? In the Sacramento area, 150 of them eagerly do. They’re “Lil’ Pups,” at-risk youngsters enrolled in Playmakers, an innovative after-school program that offers catch-up reading instruction with character-building and active play.
Now on seven area elementary campuses, Playmakers reaches up to 30 third- through sixth-graders per school for an hour and a half every Tuesday through Friday. Classes cover three segments: reading, values-building and activity. On a recent visit to Playmakers at Blanche Sprentz Elementary School in Folsom, a dozen students were quietly navigating their online reading practice. At the end of 30 minutes, teachers/coaches Anthony Viveiros and David Villaneuva, two recent Sacramento State grads, tossed out questions about character and leadership. What is integrity? How do we pay forward? What is character? All the kids knew that one: “Doing good things when no one is watching.” The session ended with outdoor play—that day it was tug of war with a thick rope, kids against coaches. The two former football players proved a tough challenge.
For many of these youngsters, life is a challenge. Greg Roeszler, a former NFL player, founded Playmakers in 2009 after learning several of the high school football players he coached were struggling with school and family issues. “Coach Roz,” as everyone calls him, realized coaching methods could help these kids grow academically, as well as instill self-confidence, character and leadership skills. The key, Roeszler says, is giving them a sense of belonging. “We make them part of a team, part of a family, and they want that.” Their new self-confidence enhances learning, which has helped improve reading skills. Playmakers is free to the children, thanks to generous donations from individuals, businesses and civic groups.
As in the grown-up world, the kids’ successes are rewarded. Their final treat is an annual bus trip to Stanford University—where Playmakers volunteer Harrison Phillips is a standout defensive end—to tour the campus and attend a football game.
Sprentz Principal Andy Smith praises Playmakers’ results. “It’s a good program, because they’re all about [teaching] values, [staying] on task, and being responsible, respectful and kind,” he says. “We definitely see an improvement in behavior that’s reinforced throughout the school.”
School may be out for summer, but the learning won’t stop. The program is operating eight weeks of summer camp for ages 8-12 at Oak Hills Church in Folsom.
When asked what they liked most about the program on my recent visit, all the students wanted to talk at once. “It’s awesome,” according to Karina. “My favorite thing is the coaches,” Olivia says. “They coach us hard, but I like it,” Jose says.
Hard or not, the coaches are soft on the kids. “Supporting these kids is passion to my heart,” Viveiros says. “Only good things happen here.”