This story begins with a veteran named Manuel Arevalo who served two tours of duty for our country and then found himself unemployed for four months upon his return. As Manny explained: “every job fair either required a level of education that I hadn’t achieved or a commitment to a low-skilled job which neither inspired nor motivated me.”
His situation is, unfortunately, all too common. Many of our enlisted veterans return from duty to significantly diminished employment opportunities. And this fact raises a fundamental question: how do we, as a nation, respond to the thousands of military personnel who are returning home, each soldier with a unique set of values, experiences and talents? We certainly know one thing: a failure to respond can lead our veterans to feeling isolated, lonely and depressed.
The Miami HEAT is committed to doing its part. Since the franchise’s inception in 1988, the team has made community outreach efforts as important a priority as winning an NBA championship. The causes to which we’ve donated time, funding and manpower are many and wide-ranging. Foremost among them is honoring military personnel. Through the team’s Home Strong initiative, founded in 2006 by HEAT President Pat Riley, the HEAT has saluted hundreds of military families in a special center-court ceremony at home games. The team has also hosted basketball clinics for countless military families, renovated homes for retired veterans, visited them in hospitals, sent thousands of care packages to soldiers all over the world, distributed Thanksgiving meals to local veterans and their families, and even hosted our player training camp at Eglin Air Force Base.
As a professional basketball organization, we also care deeply about the availability of sports to youth in our communities, especially in low-income communities. We believe in the unique role that sports can play in fostering positive youth development. We know, for example, that youth who regularly engage in sports are less likely to be involved in negative behaviors like violence and gang activity. So, when Up2Us Sports first came to us about a program called Operation Coach, we saw the opportunity to both advance our core philanthropic mission and be innovative in the veteran service space.
Up2Us Sports is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to help all children achieve their potential by providing them with coaches trained in positive youth development. Since its founding in 2010, the organization has recruited, trained and supported more than 2,000 coaches as mentors for low-income youth. Yet, when Up2Us Sports met the HEAT in 2014, they had never actively recruited veterans as coaches for their programs. We challenged them to do so, seeing it as a potential win-win for both veterans and the youth of our nation.
For many of these former soldiers, coaching youth sports has become the perfect transition plan for their own lives.
During that pilot year, Up2Us Sports recruited 10 veterans and provided them with 32 hours of initial training on how to use their military skills to foster life skills in youth, including teamwork, leadership and discipline. They also taught the coaches how to recognize and address mental health issues like trauma and chronic stress—challenges that can be as common in children growing up in low-income urban neighborhoods as they are in military personnel who have experienced combat.
Manny Arevalo was one such coach. Having dealt with many of his own challenges and searching for meaning in his life since he left the Marine Corps, Coach Manny joined the program, and now pursues his passion for soccer by coaching at-risk youth at Brotherhood Crusade, an Up2Us Sports member organization in Los Angeles.
Promising results for youth and vets
Evaluations of the pilot year of Operation Coach demonstrated its early success. The youth coached by veterans made significant gains in physical fitness as well as in key mental health skills like pro-social connections, future focus, and so-called “Plan B” thinking. Moreover, we learned something else from the pilot: the veterans themselves expressed a greater sense of attachment to their community as well as stronger feelings of self-efficacy in terms of how they viewed their own futures. Coaching sports, in effect, became the perfect transition plan for their own lives.
These two promising results addressed the needs of two distinct populations that we care about: filling a void in communities where kids were lacking positive adult role models and coaches; and successfully engaging military personnel who had all of the necessary skills to be those role models but just needed a consistent structure through which to deliver them.The Miami HEAT believes that we must be innovators. Since we first funded Operation Coach in 2014, the program has been implemented in communities across the country and has gained additional investments from ESPN and state and federal government agencies, including the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Late last year, the team was proud to announce a new five-year commitment to the program’s growth and sustainability. In addition to helping our country’s most vulnerable youth, Operation Coach is having a positive impact on our veteran coaches.
One of these veterans, Coach Kleiton, was born in Brazil and immigrated to Miami with his parents as a teenager. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy to serve his country and to gain the wherewithal to be the first in his family to pursue a college degree. After his tour of duty ended, through Operation Coach, Up2Us Sports hired and trained Kleiton to work with youth at a local elementary school. The school was in need of talented and trained coaches because a large portion of its student population came from homeless shelters, where many experienced trauma and chronic stress.
Coach Kleiton came into their lives with a unique personal background in addition to the trauma-informed training that helped him address their challenges. The principal of the school said Kleiton became more than a coach. “For many of the youth, he was like a parent, never giving up on them, and pushing them to achieve their best on the playground and in the classroom.” Upon finishing his term with Operation Coach, Kleiton decided that his future was at that school and with those children. He is now a full-time, certified P.E. teacher there.
For the Miami HEAT, that’s why Operation Coach is so special. Not only do we see it as an example for our league and other professional sports leagues that want to help veterans and inspire young people through sports, but we also view it as an example of applying new ways of thinking to the challenges facing today’s military veterans. Those who bravely defended America abroad need more opportunities to use their unique leadership skills here at home.
Being a coach may not be a career for all veterans, but it is an immediate gateway to developing a sense of purpose and belonging. And for youth who experience an Operation Coach, that sense of belonging has become a source of mentorship and understanding that will inspire them throughout their lifetimes.
Steve Stowe is Vice President and Executive Director of the Miami HEAT Charitable Fund.
Credit: Banner photo (top) courtesy of David Alvarez/Miami HEAT.