They gathered on the floor of the elementary school’s classroom, a jumble of crisscrossed legs, Chuck Taylors, ponytails and smiles. College softball players on the cusp of adulthood sat knee-to-knee with 8- to 12-year-olds on the brink of something just as big.
The girls and young women were fresh from a round of elbow tag — a game of partnering up, chasing and being chased through grass wet and slick with afternoon rain — and took their seats on the cool tile, their faces still flushed with the joy of movement.
They gather like this a couple of Monday afternoons each month. First, they play. Then, they talk — about personal boundaries, bullies, assertiveness. “They’re at this age where they’re trying to figure out who they are,” says Scripps College freshman Marissa Valdovinos, a biology major who plays outfield on the softball team. “We want them to know we’ve been there, too.”
The team and coaches sacrifice to be here on these Mondays, when their competitors are almost certainly at practice. Sundays also are out for practice — coach’s policy for academics. Wednesdays are mandatory off days, too, reserved for science labs at Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd and Scripps colleges — three schools that come together to compete in athletics as Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.
The softball team is young, with only one senior returning from last year’s 37-10-1 squad. So far this season, their L’s are keeping pace with their W’s.
But the team makes time for the girls at Mountain View Elementary because something is at stake there, too. Girls in third through sixth grade, experts say, are developing a sense of themselves outside their family units. They are becoming more self-aware, assessing their strengths and figuring out where they fit in. They are making choices that help determine who they will be. And day after day, they are confronting the issues that come with being their age in this age: mean girls, social media, body-image insecurities.
What better time to have some smart, spunky female role models who’ve traveled that road before? “We go hang out with a bunch of young girls for an hour and a half,” says junior Chloe Rodman, a psychology major at Claremont McKenna and the team’s catcher. “We’re not working out. We’re not studying. We’re not worrying about the test we have the next day or practice we have the next day.
“But these kids are at a crucial age and also have worries — worries that we’ve already faced,” Rodman continues. “We don’t necessarily have all the right answers, but it feels like we’re really influencing and helping these girls.”
For the Athenas softball team, every hour counts. But the hours spent at Mountain View might count most of all.
The teammates kick off their time with the girls by playing games outdoors.
Playing and talking. It’s the framework for the relationship between the softball players and the 40 girls who participate in Stand Strong, the team’s program at Mountain View Elementary School in Claremont, California, located less than a mile from the colleges.
The kids at Mountain View face challenges. More than half the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 1 in 5 are learning English at school. Mountain View is a Title I school, making it eligible for financial assistance, because it has a high level of children from low-income families.
Some come from families that don’t have money to fund after-school sports, much less college dreams. But many of the difficulties they meet are no different from those faced by other girls their age: They’re growing up. They’re figuring out what friendship means. They’re grappling with how to be kind to others and kind to themselves, all at the same time.
The relationship between Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and the elementary school began simply. College athletes from myriad teams — football, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball among them — volunteered to help kindergarten through third-grade teachers lead children in sports and games each week.
When softball coach Betsy Hipple, now in her 12th season as head coach, saw those de facto P.E. classes, she knew she wanted her softball team to help at the school, too. But Hipple envisioned something different: a program that wouldn’t just get the kids’ bodies moving, but would work their hearts and minds, as well. She envisioned personal relationships and mentoring. If she set it up right, Hipple thought, her team might get as much from the experience as the children did.
Working with Mountain View fourth-grade teacher Beth Coronado, a former college soccer player at Chapman, the women conceptualized an after-school program that partnered freshman softball players with third-graders, sophomores with fourth-graders, juniors with fifth-graders and seniors with sixth-graders. As the girls grew, the college students would age with them — allowing many of the students, older and younger, to grow up together.
The program began with the 2015-16 academic year. And in the year since, Monday afternoons have been spent conversing about topics guided by the here and now of the young girls’ lives and the college athletes’ memories of what it was like to be their age.
“I really wanted something that was impactful,” Hipple says. “I wanted something that was an emotional, psychological, powerful experience for these young women.”
There may be an age gap, but the girls and young women have something in common. College-aged women are at a pivotal moment in their lives, as are the girls on the brink of their teen years, Hipple and Coronado reasoned.
The program gives college students someone to be a role model for; the young girls have someone to look up to. “It seems,” Hipple says, “like it has some magic to it.”
That magic is hard to miss when the team bus arrives at Mountain View twice a month. The children wait for the softball players in the school courtyard. When the 20 women on the roster emerge from around the corner of the school building, the young girls bounce with excitement. They squeal the names of some of their favorites, jump into players’ arms and update them about the goings-on in their lives.
Hipple notes: “It’s like 25 Taylor Swifts have just arrived.”
Beth Coronado tells the team and schoolchildren their discussion topic for the day: social media.
On one recent Monday, the softball teammates and schoolgirls assembled in their circle to talk about assertiveness. The team had clear messages in mind: Know how to say no. Set boundaries. Communicate what you want. “As women, we are taught to be respectful and always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’” says Valdovinos, the freshman outfielder. “But when it comes to how we want to be treated, we don’t have to say ‘please.’”
Valdovinos and the other freshmen asked their third-grade charges: Have any of you ever had to stand up for yourself?
At first, only silence greeted the question. Then, one girl spoke up: She had worn a shirt other kids called “ugly.” She told her classmates she liked it and can wear what she chooses.
Another girl said kids tease her for raising her hand too often in class. But she likes knowing the right answer, so she does it anyway.
The young girls’ words gripped the college students. Peers had made these children feel bad about the very things that drew the softball players to them. One by one, the teammates opened up, too.
One shared how she was teased as a child for the dark, thick hair that grew on her arms and legs. Some recalled being embarrassed of their bodies as they grew up.
Several were teased as “tomboys” — a label that insinuates being good at sports makes them boyish. “When you’re a female and you’re young, they say, ‘Oh, you’re such a boy’ when you’re performing athletically,” Valdovinos says. “But no, it’s a female attribute, as well — we can jump, we can kick, we can run.
“When you’re little, and you’re trying to figure out who you are and you’re always being categorized in the wrong group,” she continues, “you’re very insecure. You just don’t know where you belong.”
The unspoken message was clear: These college softball players were strong, confident and fun-loving. But at some point, they also had been hurt — and persevered.
A third-grade girl, perhaps buoyed by the feeling of security in the circle and the idea that other girls faced problems, too, raised her hand. One of her friends always was asking her to fetch things for her, or put away toys after the two were done playing. “She’s my best friend,” the girl explained, “so I do it.”
Claremont-Mudd-Scripps softball coach Betsy Hipple in the dugout at Athena Field.
The relationship between the softball players and the schoolgirls didn’t begin in the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California. It began some 20 years ago in the Republic of Malawi, a country in southeast Africa that is among the least developed in the world. Life expectancy is low. Infant mortality is high.
Coach Hipple was assigned to Malawi as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in the mid-1990s. Her mission there immersed her into the language, the culture — and the problems.
Hipple’s understanding of immersion helps explain what she was seeking when she and Coronado developed the Stand Strong program. They didn’t want the college softball players to drop in and out of the young girls’ lives, but to become confidantes and allies during a critical point in their lives — and build those relationships over several years.
“As we go through starting to get the relationships built and some trust, and then we go year to year to year, those young girls are going to start opening up,” Hipple says. “We see the need for older mentors for young girls — how difficult that is to create and how many of those girls don’t have one, not including their mothers.”
Hipple graduated from high school in 1978 — when women’s sports were just taking hold on college campuses, but before the NCAA offered championships. Still, she saw a future for herself as a college athlete and earned a tryout for the North Carolina women’s basketball team.
She tore her ACL in the tryout. Also shattered in that moment, Hipple recalls, was her self-identity as an athlete, which to that point had fueled her dream. As an undergraduate at Northeastern, she turned her attention to undergraduate studies in outdoor education.
For years, she worked with at-risk youth through the Outward Bound program, which seeks to change lives through challenge and discovery in the outdoors. And after earning a master’s degree in health education from Utah, she pursued a lifelong dream of volunteering with the Peace Corps. She found that her graduate studies meshed with the urgent need for AIDS education in Malawi.
When she returned home, she saw for herself a career that could bring together her love for athletics with her desire to connect with people, a passion that grew in the Peace Corps. She knew she wanted to be a college coach. “I really got that coaching was about life lessons,” Hipple says. “It masquerades as basketball or softball or swimming, but it’s really about life lessons.”
The team’s coach sees the playtime they spend with the children as just as important as the serious discussions.
When the 9-year-old girl asked the freshman softball players what to do about her bossy friend, the teammates glanced at each other. “We knew we had to teach her to set boundaries,” Valdovinos recalls, “and say no.”
One teammate stepped in. “Let me pretend to be your friend,” she told the girl, then: “Can you go put away the blocks? If you’re my best friend, you’ll do it.”
The girl said “no,” but in a soft-spoken voice. The players urged her to try again — with confidence and eye contact.
“I really don’t want to put away the blocks right away,” the girl said. “I’m sorry.”
“Let’s try this again,” the softball players told the girl. “What do you want to happen right now?”
“I don’t want to put away the blocks,” the girl said.
“Don’t apologize,” team members told her. “You’re not sorry because putting away the blocks is not your job.”
Finally, the girl pulled together all the elements — the confidence, the eye contact, the direct language. On her final practice of the afternoon, she nailed it.
The team was hopeful she would get it right when she addressed the friend, too. “In general, if your friends are making you do something you don’t want to do, you should reconsider whether they’re your friends,” Valdovinos told the third-grade girls. “Just know you have control over a situation.”
Stand Strong days often end with a dance party for the Mountain View Elementary girls and the softball team.
The students can’t know how much of their message is absorbed into the children’s daily lives, but they keep looking for opportunities. Not long ago, the softball players arrived at Stand Strong to find the girls in the midst of a popular dance challenge called Leg Up Leg Down — complete with lyrics that include “can you hit the sexy walk.”
They interjected with some advice the girls might find more acceptable from college students than from their moms. “Maybe,” Mackenzie Bradford, a sophomore accounting major at Claremont McKenna and catcher for the Athenas, told the girls, “we should call it the silly walk.”
Outside the multipurpose room where the students and girls gathered to chat, Hipple conferred with assistant coach Jon Nachtigal about their hardcore practice planned for Tuesday afternoon. The upcoming weekend featured a doubleheader against a conference opponent.
Hipple says she often hears a question from other coaches: “How on earth do you play decent softball when it’s time to play?” But she believes her team is getting something from Mountain View it can’t replicate elsewhere.
“This really doesn’t have anything to do with hitting and pitching, ground balls and catching fly balls,” Hipple says. “This really is for our humanity.”