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‘I call it my medicine’: Rise Above clinic helps Indigenous children find success in sports and life

July 12, 2022 Updated Tue., July 12, 2022 at 2:02 p.m.

School is out for the summer, but Rogers High School’s Carl “Tuffy” Ellingsen Athletic Center was packed Monday afternoon with kids ready to learn how their health and well -being are critical to chase their dreams.

The nonprofit Rise Above hosted its second annual sports clinic to empower, enrich and inspire Indigenous children to “rise above” their circumstances.

“It’s really amazing. I’m overwhelmed,” said Jaci McCormack, founder of Rise Above. “People giving back, all the all-stars here wanting to help and enjoy themselves while coaching, and the kids? Their faces, their energy? I’m rejuvenated. It’s very humbling to have people come out for Rise Above, because it’s not about us, it’s about the kids.”

The sports clinic welcomed children from all over the Pacific Northwest . The diversity in age and perspective of the clinic leaders was an intentional decision for this year’s clinic.

NBA stars Lenny Wilkens, Spencer Haywood, Dale Ellis, Craig Ehlo and Detlef Schrempf worked the basketball clinics. Olympians Carla McGhee and Venus Lacy, part of the 1996 Women’s Olympic Basketball Team, also participated. University of Montana player Freddy Brown III, of the Makah Tribe, led basketball exercises.

Emoni Bush, of the We Wai Kum First Nation, and Jeff Ross, a descendant of the English River First Nation, led volleyball workouts.

Adaptive sports were added to this year’s schedule. Noah Hotchkiss, a South Ute and South Cheyenne tribal member, led basketball clinics too. He sustained an injury at age 11 and he since has used a wheelchair for mobility. Before then, he played soccer.

Hotchkiss called sports “his medicine.” He pursued wheelchair basketball to keep active, one of the main components of his choice to attend Rise Above.

“I call it my medicine. Sports gave me an outlet to be myself and find love in those kinds of areas of my life,” Hotchkiss said. “My mentor (Olympic runner) Billy Mills used to tell me that our lack in Indian Country today is a lack of dreams. Events like this are empowering them, we’re showing them what they can do.”

As a member of the men’s national wheelchair basketball team, Hotchkiss feels that his presence was an added layer of representation for children . He and Dale Ellis played a short game of wheelchair basketball near the clinic’s end.

“I think it’s an important thing to have accessibility for all sports, and that includes more women’s sports, more disabled sports, Special Olympics, to really impact as many people as possible,” Hotchkiss said. “It wasn’t until I found adaptive sports where I said ‘OK, I can do this and I can do that.’ I’ve benefited from it so much that I want to pass that message to anyone else that I can.”

Soccer and football workouts, newer additions to the clinic, took place outside to Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” while McCormack passed out sunscreen.

Lynley Hilligoss, who met McCormack at Illinois State University, led soccer workouts that focused on passing and stealing techniques.

Levi Horn, a descendant of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, hosted football workouts. As a young Indigenous man, Horn said sports helped him “say yes to the good stuff and build a path to goals.”

Children who attended the football clinic participated in ladder exercises for clean footwork, tackle drills as well as technique drills that focused on keeping receivers out of opponents’ eyesight.

A former NFL offensive tackle, Horn is also head coach of the freshmen football team at Rogers, his alma mater. He called his involvement in the Rise Above clinic “a dream come true.” The moment, Horn said, is a full-circle moment as someone who grew up in the Hillyard Neighborhood, unable to afford expensive football clinics.

“ I know I’m out here working my journey,” he said. “To be able to come back to this area where we don’t have a lot of things like Rise Above, and don’t have the ability to pay $250 for camp, that’s what it was about.

“The only thing I wanted to do was give back.”

Award-winning actor Danny Glover sported New Balance shoes and this year’s red Rise Above shirt during the event. Glover said working with programs such as Rise Above keeps him in touch with his life mission of equality, citing his parents’ membership in the American Postal Workers Union as a child.

For Glover, 75, motivating Rise Above’s participants is his way to ensure the next generation is inspired and hopeful.

“With these kids, bouncing a basketball is a metaphor for life,” Glover said. “You hope that these kids take whatever exertion here and apply that to try to make life’s baskets as they grow into adults and parents.”

Faith Njeri was one of the parents watching from the stands, happy that she brought her 8-year-old daughter, Luciana Szymanski to the clinic.

“She never played basketball and didn’t know how she’d do, so I said ‘Well, let’s go and see how you do,’ ” Njeri said. “She really enjoyed it, so I think this helps build their self-esteem very well.”

Njeri appreciated the opportunity to watch Szymanski absorb the clinic’s positive message while celebrating her first steps into a new hobby. For her hard work during the clinic, Szymanski won a free reusable water bottle after beating a teammate in a race.

“Now these people are motivating her to play at that level,” Njeri said.

As the day ended, McCormack said she felt she hosted another successful clinic that encouraged children to be great players and even better people.

“Don’t allow your environment to dictate your future,” McCormack told the children in closing remarks.

Her goal was accomplished: She established Rise Above as a healthy, community organization, a lifestyle and motivation for the next generation.

“It’s hard because it’s such a short time, but we’re telling the kids ‘You can do it, you’re capable.’ Outside I heard coach talking about ‘We’re going to finish!’ ” McCormack said. “Being here, being present, paying attention to the kids, giving them our energy, it’s been awesome.”

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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