Save Our Sports keeps middle-school teams in action
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Eat cake, keep a kid in sports. Pair it with wine, even better. In Sonoma Valley, it’s a winning combination for the middle-school sports program.
Were it not for a generous community that ate, drank and made donations, 390 students would be benched from afterschool competitive-league sports this academic year.
When the Sonoma Valley Unified School District painstakingly cut $2.6 million from its budget last spring, all sports were eliminated from the district’s two middle schools, leaving Adele Harrison and Altimira without teams for girls’ volleyball, boys’ and girls’ basketball and co-ed soccer, track and wrestling.
That was a losing proposition for students anxious to wear school jerseys representing the Adele Hornets and Altimira Wolves, something that bothered even kids who don’t play sports.
“There was a definite ‘We can’t let sports go’ reaction,” said Adele Principal Karla Conroy. “A number of students came forward and said we cannot let this happen.”
For parents like Eileen Pharo, big-league action was the only option: step up to the fundraising plate and hit a homer. She and fellow Adele mom Samantha Reed joined forces with Altimira volunteers Joanna Greenslade and Stacey Ellis-Schoeningh and began brainstorming with athletics directors Michael Amaral and Jann Thorpe and principals from both schools on how they could raise the $52,000 in coaching stipends needed to reinstate sports.
“It can change their lives,” said Pharo, an elementary school intervention teacher and mother of Adele seventh-grade basketball player Francesca Pharo. “Just from my years in education I see how important it is to kids.”
Within weeks, the determined group of parents founded the Save Our Sports committee, throwing a lifesaver out to the community. The grassroots campaign showcased the generosity of the valley – and highlighted the can-do spirit of a small group of parents.
SOS planned a taco buffet fundraiser last May at the picturesque Larson Family Winery, with the Larsons donating the use of their facilities. Parent Ramon Contreras of Contreras Catering donated the food for 400 supporters, and several other parents and businesses helped out by donating silent auction items.
And then there were the cakes, homemade by parents of the young athletes. Altimira Principal Will Deeths led a spirited live auction modeled after a highly successful one at Rancho Cotate High School in Rohnert Park where Conroy’s husband, Ed Conroy, is a coach and teacher.
Deeths is a personable and outgoing man who once kept a promise to students to get a Mohawk haircut and dye it in school colors (green and gold) if they met a fundraising goal. He succeeded with students and used those same motivating powers to get donors to spend upwards of $400 for a single frosted layer cake, bringing a couple thousand dollars to the cause.
In all, the event raised $26,000 for SOS.
Deeths says there are multiple benefits to being a student athlete: learning responsibility and time management, accountability, maintaining grades (a minimum 2.0 GPA is required) and good sportsmanship among them – skills that carry over to other aspects of their lives.
“They’re a part of something bigger than themselves to represent their school,” he said.
Ellis-Schoeningh knows firsthand how middle-school sports can shape student achievement. The oldest of her four children, Riley Ellis-Reis, is a scholar-athlete at Sonoma Valley High School who got her start at Altimira.
“It’s the whole balancing act of life,” said Ellis-Schoeningh, whose seventh-grader, Layla Schoeningh, is an athlete for the Wolves. The family’s two youngest children want to play for Altimira when they’re old enough, too.
“They look forward to it. It’s their first opportunity to represent their school. It also gets you ready for your high school (sports) programs,” Ellis-Schoeningh said.
Both Adele and Altimira middle schools feed into Sonoma Valley High School, bringing a group of experienced athletes to the field or court.
SOS organizers say last year’s fundraising campaign was successful because it brought together students and families from all areas of the valley, perhaps shaking any presumptions or sense of cross-town competition.
“Barriers were taken down, and preconceived notions,” said Pharo.
The local newspaper supported the community-wide campaign by offering $5,000 in matching funds with readers. The local youth soccer league kicked in $4,000 and donations large and small came from individuals, clubs and businesses across town.
Students stepped up, too, like Adele’s Maddie Cashel who raised more than $1,200 by pedaling in a benefit bike ride.
“It was the unification of the two schools coming together for one cause,” said Conroy. “I think it truly was an effort for middle-school kids.”
The community has another opportunity to grab the lifesaver. SOS is planning to fund sports for the upcoming school year, fearful that a tight budget and money from redevelopment funds will go toward other educational priorities.
SOS is ready for round two.
“Unless,” joked Deeths, “the district bought a lot of Lotto tickets.”
Join the fun at the Mardi Gras Cajun Boil
What: Save Our Sports, in partnership with the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, presents a Mardi Gras Cajun Boil with pots of shrimp, sausages and vegetables.
When: Saturday, March 9
Time: Doors open at 6 p.m., dinner at 7 p.m.
Where: Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building, 126 First St. W.
Drinks: No-host bar, must be 21 or older to attend.
Dancing: Live music by Backtrax.
Extras: Live dinner music by Stan Pappas, wine with dinner, live cake auction, photo booth, raffles, Fund-a-Need.
Tickets: $50 at the door, $45 in advance at Adele Harrison Middle School, 1150 Broadway; Altimira Middle School, 17805 Arnold Drive; or by mail to SVEF, P.O. Box 752, Sonoma 95476 (payable to SVEF, SOS in memo, tickets held at the door.)
Information: Chickie Vella at 938-3232, Stacey Ellis-Schoeningh at 227-6285.