PADECKY: Where would we be without Schools Plus?

By BOB PADECKY
PRESS DEMOCRAT

Diana Villagomez, an 8th grader at Comstock Middle School, is telling the story Thursday and when she gets to the dramatic sentence – feels a bit like a punch line except she wasn’t laughing – you try to pull a word or two out of the air to make her feel better. Except you can’t. Embarrassment is not so easily erased.

The Comstock girls are playing a basketball game, Diana can’t remember the opponent, and the team is running down the court after a basket. To the side of her, something catches her eye. She turns, sees a teammate and right there, in plain view for everyone, it happens.

“A letter on her uniform fell off,” Villagomez said. She believes it was the letter “T” from “COMSTOCK.”

The uniform was so old, so ragged, it was falling apart right there in the middle of a game. No one had bumped into her teammate. No one had drug their fingers across the jersey front. It just fell off, landed on the floor, it had given up the long, hard fight for respectability. The same might be said about the wearer.

Villagomez lowered her eyes when she told the story. Embarrassment, humiliation, diminished self-worth, no teenager anywhere is comfortable looking into the eyes of anyone when telling a story like that.

So when people hear the news about what Schools Plus has done this year and for the previous 21 years, they shouldn’t breeze on past the news. They shouldn’t shrug as if it’s inconsequential. And they shouldn’t think, they should never think, it doesn’t matter. Schools Plus may be a name that doesn’t leap out and beg to be noticed, until you hear the stories. This one time in which money contains a human element, and not just a bank account for a rich, fat cat.

Comstock is one of 11 schools in the Santa Rosa City School system who will be receiving a check from Schools Plus. Five middle schools will receive $6,250 each, with twice that amount to each of the five high schools. Ridgeway Alternative School will receive a middle school check. Half the money is earmarked for arts and music, the other half for athletics. At Comstock part of the athletic monies will provide new basketball uniforms. The upgrade is not just in the quality of new fabric.

It’s also in the smell of it. The old, raggedly uniforms had an odor. They weren’t washed after every game for fear they would fall apart.

“New uniforms will be nice,” said Comstock 7th grader Juan Estrella, a basketball player, “so you won’t be embarrassed to play in front of your parents.”

Appearances aren’t everything but it’s a place in which most of us start. For those who may have forgotten, being a teenager contains so much emphasis on appearance, on clothing, on shoes, on hair, on make-up, on looking cool or looking like a geek or a jerk or trash. It’s a wonder any of us make it out of our adolescent years with any self-esteem at all.

“I try to look my best,” said Melanie Mathewson, an 8th grader at Santa Rosa Middle School who runs track and cross country. “It’s especially true of girls. You get judged a lot on how you look. It’s sad but true.”

Santa Rosa Middle School will be buying new track and cross country uniforms with its Schools Plus check, among other things. Now there’s a phrase – among other things. At a time in which money is tighter than Joan Rivers’ face, a $6,250 check feels like $62,500 check to coaches and athletic directors who nervously are eating their fingernails to find solutions to very real problems. Problems, by the way, that extend beyond aesthetics.

“I wouldn’t put that on my head,” a football player last fall told Dominic Wilson of Piner during a game.

The player was referring to the helmet Wilson was wearing. OK, so it wasn’t a salad bowl with a chinstrap but it wasn’t the kind of protective headgear needed either in the violent game. Wilson said the helmet dug into his skull. The helmet was so old, so ill-fitting, so dangerous, that before football season last fall, the parents of 15 Piner players went out and bought their sons new helmets. Coach John Antonio admitted he felt embarrassed for parents to do what he should have done – if he had the money.
“We need 80 helmets for both our varsity and junior varsity teams,” Antonio said, “and in an ideal world, I need to replace 50 of them.”

Antonio gets a deal on a new helmet, $250 a pop, but he’s not the only coach at Piner looking lovingly at the school’s athletic allotment – half of the $12,500 Schools Plus contribution. Girls basketball coach Jim Vargas heard a call to arms from his own son, Mike, who played basketball at Piner. Young Mike looked at the girls uniforms and had to say something to his dad.

“These look exactly like the same type of uniforms when I played here 10 years ago,” son told father.

Not that this was the first time Vargas noticed the realities of public school economics.

“When I got here,” said Vargas, who will be entering his second year as coach, “the basketballs looked 10 years old. You pump air into them and half of them would go flat.”

Mention the name “Schools Plus” to Vargas or Antonio or any coach or administrator in the Santa Rosa school system and they will turn into a gooey mess of affection. Schools Plus is an exalted principle to them, an ideal of the highest ranking as it were, and words nearly fail for school officials describing what the organization means to them.

“If it wasn’t for Schools Plus,” said Robin Clark, the athletic director at Comstock, “I don’t think middle school sports would exist. For someone to get a new pair of shoes … Schools Plus matters so much to us.”

This was John Bribsescas’ thought 22 years ago. Having taught and coached in the area for 35 years Bribsescas saw the value in life outside of a classroom. Art, music, athletics weren’t expendable fluff.

“I wanted our kids to enjoy the complete school experience,” he said. Responsibility, self-esteem, commitment, discipline, working with peers, they last a lifetime. They are preparation for adulthood. Even with the rush of technology, they are never antiquated or unnecessary.

Athletics – despite the poor messages sent to us by some professional athletes – form that core of personal integrity. Done well, this is the sentence every parent wants to hear from their kids: Yeah, I’m ready for life, mom. That message has not been lost.
“I have parents who were kids then,” said Bribsescas, 63 and a 1966 graduate of Santa Rosa High, “putting their kids through school around here and helping with Schools Plus.”

Schools Plus should be considered the gold standard of community involvement. It is in the process of distributing $100,000 to the 11 Santa Rosa city schools. It has raised approximately $3.5 million in 22 years. It has been a moving force in staving the closure of school sports, three times by last count. It is the working utopian model of one man and one thought making a difference.

Yet, when your hear the voices of the kids it affects, you never think about the money.

“You have to be as cool at the new uniform you are wearing,” Mathewson said. “You want to be as good as the uniform looks.”
Sitting right next to her in an office at Santa Rosa Middle School, Alex Diggs, a 7th grader who plays basketball and runs track, finished the thought, one shared by every athlete at every place Schools Plus touches.

“It feels like,” said Diggs explaining why new uniforms are important, “you can do anything.”

Which is really the point of all this.

Self-esteem is the gift that keeps on giving.

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.