What started as an effort to motivate students has turned into a program helping hundreds of youths reach their potential.

The practice pad is nothing special. It’s a small chunk of field turf surrounded by cement. The goal sits on one end, its nets holding on with whatever threads it has left. Every time someone flicks their wrist and the ball hits the back of the net, one more thread let’s go. High passes cause the ball to land on the road adjacent to the pad. Coaches yell at players to let the ball be. Don’t want anyone to get hit by the cars as they stream by.

It’s not some state of the art facility, but to Ralph Nelson, that doesn’t matter. All he needs is a place where he can play a sport he never knew he’d fall in love with: lacrosse.

How Do I Reach These Kids?

In 2008, Simon Cataldo was trying to solve an issue that every teacher faces: how do I connect with my kids? Then the special education teacher at Frederick Douglass Academy I in Harlem, New York had an epiphany his second year on the job.

He could use lacrosse as a way to inspire, motivate and encourage his kids.

“It started out with a special education teacher trying to find something that would engage with his kids and it really took off from there,” said Adrian Heneveld, program director at Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot School, the Boston branch of Harlem Lacrosse.

“Part of the appeal of lacrosse is that lacrosse isn’t a sport that’s traditionally played in the inner cities, so when colleges or boarding schools are looking at athletes they want to bring into their schools, a lot of these lacrosse players are these white, upper class families,” Eliza Halmo, program director at TechBoston Academy Girls, said. “Why shouldn’t inner city kids be able to play lacrosse?”

Stay True to What Got You Here

In less than 10 years, the program that started with 11 kids has grown to four cities, with a fifth to open in the fall, and 361 total students enrolled in the program.

Even as the program has grown, it still holds to the ideas that caused Cataldo to introduce lacrosse in the first place. Of the 361 students, 96.4 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch, and 27.5 percent receive special education services.

“We recruit a lot of students, we recruit any and every student whether they have played sports or not, whether they are the lowest academically or the highest academically,” Heneveld said. “But we really focus on the kids who need something to be there to fit in socially or a hook to start improving academically.”

The needs of their students are what drive program directors like Heneveld and Halmo to be even more visible and intertwined with their students. They have to be the glue that keeps their students on the track.

“They’re in school all day with the kids, they provide academic and behavioral support,” Halmo explained. “They’re the head coach of the lacrosse team, they’re planning and executing study hall and practice plans and then scheduling community engagement trips, so they’re fully immersed into different aspects of the kids’ lives.”

“We preach that we focus on them as people, as students and then as lacrosse players,” Heneveld said. “We back that up with how we spend our time. We’re able to be full time in the school year round so we still see them in the summers. We focus on classroom, so we can go into classrooms and work with them out of the classroom based on what the teachers want.”

Teach Someone to Fish, and Feed Them for a Lifetime

Heneveld explained it best when he said “We call ourselves a middle school intervention program.” For many boys and girls, ages 12-14 are among the most formative years of their life. Harlem Lacrosse focuses their programs to that age range in order to have the biggest impact on their students.

“We spend a lot of that time talking to them academically and talking to them about their character and them growing as people. After school we can focus on the lacrosse piece,” Heneveld said.

That focus has lead to incredible results for those that go through the programs. Harlem Lacrosse alumni have a dropout rate of 2.5 percent, which is 7 percent lower than the average.

Harlem Lacrosse alumni have gone on to attend Bates College, Colby College, Connecticut College, Gettysburg College, Haverford College, Hobart College, Tufts University, the University of Virginia, and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“As middle school students, they have a lot of life in front of them, so we’re trying to give them opportunities along the way that will set them up to have a path that they determine themself,” Heneveld said.

The sky is a beautiful shade of blue today. Normally, Nelson wouldn’t be looking at it, but he is now. As the ringing in his ears quiets down, he slowly begins to remember what happened. He wasn’t paying attention to the other players, he was more focused on the ball. That opened the window, and any time a 13-year-old can light up someone else, they’re going to take it.

“I Thought I Would Be Knocked Out a Lot”

None of this would be possible if it wasn’t for two things: student buy-in and lacrosse.

“The first day of school we had a pep assembly and I showed a one-minute clip of college lacrosse highlights, and part of that included a guy laying someone out and the were hooked from there,” Heneveld recalled.

Lacrosse combines the physicality of football, the footwork of soccer, the fast pace of basketball and the passing of baseball and softball.

“I thought I would be knocked out a lot, and I know it’s kinda like football and I like to play football,” Nelson said.

“A big buy-in on the girls side was just the idea that they could be a part of something that was bigger than just themselves. A lot of the girls had never been on a team before,” Halmo said. “The socialization aspect they were all really excited about and being a part of a team.”

Look Down Field

This fall, Harlem Lacrosse is piloting a high school program on top of what it offers for their middle school students. “We’re trying to figure out ways to support our kids as they move on to high school,” Halmo said.

Also, as they add cities and schools, program directors will have their hands full. “We’re pretty spread out, so right now we’re trying to deepen the infrastructure and support systems,” explained Halmo. “So adding regional directors to our different cities will help later on build more programs at  different schools and impact more kids.”

For all of the changes that may happen on the logistical side, one thing that won’t change will be the focus. “I was talking to our principal, and we have a student that at the beginning of the year was having a lot of behavior issues and throughout the winter he was in and out of lacrosse and then once the spring season started he was really hooked with our practices and our trips,” Heneveld said. “His behavior has improved, he’s been more connected to other students and been able to regulate himself during the school day a lot better than he has before and our principal was just talking about how positive lacrosse was for him.”

Nelson sees the back of the net shoot out and then retract. His teammate scored. He struts around like he won the lottery. Nelson is happy for him, but annoyed that no one is recognizing the effort it took for the goal to be scored.

Out of the corner of his eye he sees a fist in the air. Nelson looks over to see his coach, with a smile on his face. Someone recognized it after all.

That’s all Nelson needs. There’s no markings on the field turf. The circle around the goal is a rope that’s been borrowed from the gym. That’s fine. All he needs is his stick, a ball and his teammates. Harlem Lacrosse has given him an opportunity he wouldn’t have normally had, and he’s not going to let it slip.