There are so many kids, Diana Diaz says. She could pick dozens to talk about.
One kid, she says, is in fifth grade and has been part of the Jamestown Community Center in the Mission District since kindergarten. The boy’s father is a single parent, Diaz says, and works long hours, which is hard on both of them. So Diaz has been there when the boy shows up before the morning bell at Cesar Chavez Beacon school for the breakfast, and she’s been there when he shows up after school for art classes, school work, sports and other programs, and she’s been there when he leaves at 6 p.m.
“It’s a slow process sometimes for kids to build trust in others, including us,’’ Diaz says. “But over the years, bit by bit, I’ve seen this kid grow so much emotionally. He’s able to express himself verbally instead of physically. He can express his frustration and advocate for his needs now.’’
Which, she says, will shape who he’ll be five, 10, 20 years from now. That’s the point of all of Jamestown’s youth development programs.
“These experiences are an anchor for whatever he’s going to do in his life,’’ Diaz says. “He’s learning that there are people beyond his family that can be supportive and helpful. I know in my own life, there were adults who provided a foundation of trust and stability for me. I was able to envision a future.”
Diaz is all of 24 years old, yet has a depth of understanding and connection to the children at Jamestown that comes only from experience. She knows those kids because she was those kids. Many of her fellow staff members were former youth who attended programming at Jamestown.
“I want to give them what I would have wanted when I was a kid,’’ she says.
One of those things is simply “a sense of warmth,’’ as she puts it, “a sense of safety for the kids who don’t have that at home.’’
Diaz is one of 170 staff and volunteers at Jamestown, which provides a wide range of programs that include tutoring, before and after school academic enrichment, summer programs and camps, social/emotional support, youth workforce, parent leadership development, and Afro-Latino arts education and performance. Jamestown Community Center serves 1,371 youth per year. Their organized sports programs – which allows all to join with no fee for participation or uniforms – serves 330 youth each year.
Jamestown’s vision is for “all of San Francisco's youth and families to have access to the opportunities they need to thrive and create a city that is safe, equitable, inter-connected and community-led.’’
Like so many young people who have essentially grown up at the Jamestown Community Center, Diaz found the space, and the support, to create her own path as she continues to grow in her roles professionally and personally. At Jamestown, she has been an art teacher, a program assistant and now a site manager at Cesar Chavez, one of Jamestown’s four school sites. She’s a self-taught artist who has designed T-shirts for several Jamestown programs and special events, and also projects focused on social justice.
“I envision myself continuing to work with kids,’’ Diaz says. She has an associate’s degree in psychology and is now taking art classes at City College. She plans to enroll at San Francisco State in the spring and study art, psychology or child development. Maybe, she says, she’ll get a teaching credential. She already has her own website where she sells art, T-shirts, stickers and pins of her own design (www.diazarte.com).
“None of this happens overnight,’’ Diaz says. “It’s been several years to get to this point in my life. I was a really shy kid growing up as a child of divorce. I would never have imagined I’d have the confidence to take on the job of site manager (at Cesar Chavez) at age 24. But at Jamestown, I was able to open up, push myself out of my comfort zone and grow. Rather than think, ‘This is all I can do,’ I know now there’s more I can say and offer and demonstrate to others.
“That’s the impact I hope I leave behind when I move on from Jamestown -- that I made a difference. I hope the kids who are here now can get inspiration to do what I’ve done, and that they’ll make an impact, and that the kids after them will make an impact, and so on.
“The point is, I’m not a unique success. This is what Jamestown was created for. I want kids to look at me and say, ‘That can also be me.’’’
“Familia’’ is the one-word description of HorizonsUnlimited in the Mission District. Their building on Potrero Avenue is what executive director Celina Lucero calls “a sacred space.’’ Young Latinx and people of color – from ages 12 to 26 –have been coming through Horizon’s doors since 1965. They might come to develop leadership skills, access support services, and even find a job.
When they leave, they are changed – some slightly, manyprofoundly – in how they see themselves, how they face discrimination and racism, how they understand that life is messy and takes you in circles sometimes, and that it’s OK because they have voices and agency to do something about it.
“Once they’re done with the program, their own power feeds into the collective power of what sustains our community,’’ Lucero says.
Eliahna Chacon has been with Horizons on and off for about three years. She was on a cycle of committing to a Horizons’ program, stepping away to tend to things that life threw her way, then returning to Horizons for support. Each time, she found the door open. “There’s always an entry point,’’ says Celina.
Chacon is in Horizon’s LifeWorks Program, which focuses on youth who have an almost impossible time getting a job because of run-ins with the law. She’s now running a workshop through Horizons that teaches life skills to kids who are making the tricky transition from fifth grade to middle school. In this era of Zoom teaching, Chacon has had to be creative with her curriculum and presentations.
“The kids love her,’’ says program director Nancy Abdul-Shakur. “And she loves the kids. She’s decided this is what she wants to do with her life: teach kids. She’s adamant about it.’’
Twenty-year-old aspiring artist Li Saldanejo, who goes by the pronouns they/them, found their way to Horizons in high school. “I was dealing with a lot of mental health stuff,’’ they say. “I didn’t feel I had much purpose in life. Horizons gave me that meaning back.’’ They joined Horizons’ DJ Project Event Productions to design fliers for events, working alongside professional artists. Saldanejo also accessed needed support services at Horizons.
“They helped me grow technically as an artist and made me better emotionally,’’ they say. “I have space to express my art and to educate others by digging into the urban type of art.’’
For a hip-hop event, Saldanejo created a flier that featured a raised brown-skinned fist with long red-polish nails. “Hip-hop is a multifaceted art but still identified as male,’’ they say. Saldanejo wanted to start a conversation about the feminine side of hip-hop. “Li is making a statement through art about shifting gender norms,’’ Abdul-Shakur says.
When high school student Daniela Oropeza joined Horizon’s Females Against Violence (FAV) program in January, she was, in her words, depressed and broken. She was reeling from a recent trauma.
“I went to a few of FAV’s campaigns, including one about sexual abuse and rape culture,’’ Oropeza says. “As a survivor myself, I needed the information they were delivering. Hearing that presentation helped me come to terms with what happened to me. It literally changed my life. I had incredible support from the other girls and mentors. And I’ve been able to support girls myself as a youth leader.’’
In the spring, Oropeza spearheaded a campaign through FAV calling for the end to what is known as the Pink Tax, which is the practice of charging more for women’s products than for men’s products of a similar nature and for charging tax on essential items like tampons and sanitary napkins. (In all but eight U.S. states, essential items like groceries are not taxed.)Talking about the pink tax opens the door to conversations about income inequality and other social/economic justice topics, she says.
“I always had an issue about expressing myself. Now I have a newfound sense of awareness. Females Against Violence helped me get that. I didn’t know I could be that person who speaks up.’’
As a senior, Daniela Oropeza is scouting colleges. She wants to major in science or alternative medicine and minor in Chicana studies.
Eliahna Chacon is preparing to study child development with the goal of being a full-time teacher.
Li Saldanejo is attending City College and deciding whether to pursue a career in the arts or in psychology. She’s currently applying for a job as a library page at the San Francisco Public Library.
They are on a path to be the next generation of leaders. Not long ago, there was a young woman at Horizons just like them, walking that same path. Her name is Celina Lucero, the organization’s executive director.
JoJo Ty is just 22 years old, though you’d swear he’s older. He’s crammed a lot of living into his short life. As a teenager, he lurched from one San Francisco public high school to another – School of the Arts to Balboa to Independence – battling depression and anxiety and feeling claustrophobic within the constraints of mainstream education and his own body. He dropped out at 16.
Now on a Friday afternoon in early August, Ty emerges from behind the counter of a unique coffee spot in the heart of the Tenderloin called Fluid Cooperative Café. It is one of 7 individually owned-and-operated eating venues inside the brand new La Cocina Municipal Marketplace, a high-ceilinged, book-lined food court serving up everything from New Orleans gumbo to spicy West African flatbread.
The doors opened to the public just five days earlier, and already Ty and his co-owners -- Santana Tapia and Shannon Amitin – have a clientele of locals who are making the café their own. Which is exactly what Fluid’s three transgender entrepreneurs envisioned when they submitted their proposal to La Cocina, the dynamic Bay Area nonprofit that assists low-income and marginalized people in starting and growing their own food businesses. They wanted a café that was welcoming to everyone, but especially to black and brown trans youth. Ty, who is of Filipino descent, and Tapia, who is Mexican, know this from experience.
“There was no place for us to be when we were growing up,’’ Ty says, taking a seat at a café table as Tapia serves up lattes and herbal tea to customers, and Amitin – who is older and a veteran of the food industry – scrutinizes Fluid’s accounting software at the counter.
“If you were under 21, you couldn’t go to bars,’’ Ty says of his own teenage experience. “You couldn’t go to drag shows. You couldn’t hang out at coffee shops without being accused of loitering. So when Santana, Shannon and I got together, we said ‘There’s a need here that’s not being met. Let’s create the place ourselves.’’’
They began the business on a shoestring: receiving space for the cafe from La Cocina, landing a small grant, then raising $6,000 from allies and friends in the LGBTQ+ community. (They’re still raising money to buy an espresso machine.) The easiest part for the three partners was agreeing on the name Fluid. A trans-focused coffee shop “has a fluid feel, like a torch has been passed to us by our ancestors,’’ Ty explains, referring in particular to the drag queens and trans people who in August 1966, at a popular trans gathering spot in the Tenderloin, fought back against constant harassment and violence at the hands of San Francisco police. The uprising came to be known as the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot.
“Compton’s Cafeteria predated Stonewall, did you know that?’’ Ty asks, referring to the more famous 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York that became the catalyst for the gay rights movement. For the trans community, the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot is so central in their history that Ty, Tapia and Amitin have made it a centerpiece of the Fluid website https://www.fluidcoopsf.com/:
“. . . Compton’s Cafeteria in the 1960s was an early example of a community space. But . . . trans and gender non-conforming people did not own those spaces. During the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, management called on the State to use violence to push our trans and queer ancestors back on the streets.
“Fluid Cooperative Cafe brings us full circle and makes us whole. We will no longer demand a seat at just anyone’s table. With Fluid Cooperative Cafe, we are building our own table — and we invite you to join us each time you come in, one coffee and one event at a time.’’
Ty and his co-owners are planning events such as open-mike nights and youth drag shows as well as community gatherings. Actually, they participated in their first event three days before Fluid Café and the Municipal Marketplace even opened. To bridge potential cultural and social misconceptions, La Cocina invited Ty, Tapia and Amitin to put on workshop for their fellow vendors that delved into topics like the definition of gender fluidity and the importance of being sensitive to pronouns. “It was Gender 101,” Ty says, smiling. The diverse business owners – many of them immigrants – listened and asked questions, genuinely curious.
La Cocina’s Municipal Marketplace stands as a microcosm of San Francisco at its best, where community is both catalyst and refuge. Ty shakes his head wondering what trans people in the 1960s would think about Fluid Cooperative Café.
“Here we are in 2021,’’ he says, “and there’s a business and a space made by us, for all.’’
On any given night, more than 1,100 young people have no safe, reliable place to sleep in San Francisco and California is home to nearly 1/3 of all youth experiencing homelessness in the nation. These youth are resourceful, ingenious, resilient survivors of a chronically failed system. 80% are youth of color and nearly 50% identify as LGBTQ+. The impact is generational, pervasive, and simply unnecessary in a city so rich in resources.
The transformation that comes when young people grow in a stable, safe environment is proven, and significant. Youth go from surviving to thriving with access to behavioral health, housing, education, skill and workforce development, and a safe social circle. “Each client has the time to realize the strength in themselves,’’ Larkin Street You Services’ staffer Kenyaun Christie says of the nonprofit’s cutting-edge, two-year transitional housing program. “Sometimes it’s hard for them to see it, but we remind them that the very real pain, loss, PTSD and suffering is not the end.”
When a young person uses substances it is often to cope with trauma and/or the experience of homelessness. All of us, but especially youth, need safety, guidance, and support that does not require sacrificing boundaries. Twenty-two-year-old Alexandra Thurber arrived at Larkin Street in late summer 2018. (The one with the pink hair in the accompanying photo. With her are fellow members of Larkin’s Youth Advisory Board -- Xander Moore and Roxie Corrigan.)
Thurber was a full-time student at UC-Santa Barbara before she was forced to drop out after just two-and-a-half semesters. I burned all my bridges with family and friends and didn’t have anybody left,’’ she says. Like too many young people, Alexandra Young had inconceivable experiences and fell into substance use to cope. She notes of an abusive relationship, “I had to make the decision to leave him and risk my life, or to stay with him and risk my life. I had to choose which one was going to keep me alive the longest.’’
She recalls, “In AA you hear people say all the time that they got sober because they were frickin’ tired of being frickin’ tired,’’ Thurber says. “That’s how I got to Larkin Street. They gave me the resources to pick myself up and get on my feet if I chose to. And I did.’’ She found out first-hand that Larkin Street lived by its mission statement: “We nurture potential, promote dignity and support bold steps by all.” “They weren’t judgmental,’’ Thurber says. “They accepted where I was at. They were forgiving but also held boundaries. They were really truthful about what would happen if I kept going the way I was going. I needed to hear that.’’ Nearly 70 percent of the young people who complete the Larkin Street program are now employed and/or in school. An extraordinary stat given the challenges!
Thurber, Moore and Corrigan are in paid leadership roles with the Youth Advisory Board. They and their YAB colleagues not only advocate for Larkin clients, they also make impact at the city, state, and federal level by advocating for funds and resources that will resolve youth homelessness. They speak up at City Hall on policy issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community and people of color. They’ve been providing public health education to their peers as well as making a video documentary about the experiences of young people impacted by both homelessness during a pandemic. These are brilliant young advocates, change-makers and resilient leaders of tomorrow.
Now 19 months sober Thurber has reconciled with her family in San Diego, though she hasn’t seen them due to COVID. She has a full-time job at The Grove restaurant in San Francisco and attends City College, where she’s majoring in social work, minoring in creative writing, and earning her certificate in Trauma Prevention and Recovery. She will soon be applying to transfer to a four-year college. When asked to define resilience, Thurber shared, “Resilience is about hardship and how you overcome those things.’’ she says. “It’s how you choose to grow in hard situations. How you approach those things with grace.’’
With access to healthcare, stable housing, and workforce development ensuring a foundation to build on, these young people become change agents for their families and community, breaking generational cycles of poverty and fighting back against racism, transphobia, homophobia. Youth who find their way to Larkin find respect, healthy boundaries, stability, and a chance to thrive as they grow up. They gain the benefit of time and perspective, and they come to see appreciate themselves for who they are, (brilliant, innovative, insightful survivors) rather than the things they’ve been through. If you’d like to help light the way for San Francisco youth experiencing homelessness, help Larkin Street keep the lights on by making a financial or in-kind donation today.
Emily Yang is the eighth of nine children born to Hmong parents who fled Laos in the 1970s as war refugees. The family settled in Stockton, home to more than 7,000 Hmong. As Emily graduated UC-Davis and is now making her way through San Francisco State nursing school – becoming the first in her family to scale such heights – she continues to hold fast to her roots.
“The Hmong population is often really resistant to Western medicine,’’ Emily says. “Being Hmong myself, and speaking the language, helps me bridge the gap to gain more trust.’’
Emily volunteered at a student-run clinic for two years while at UC-Davis, where she first learned about the disproportionate impact of Hepatitis B on the Asian population. So when she began nursing school in 2020 – smack in the middle of the COVID pandemic -- she jumped at the opportunity to work with a San Francisco public health campaign called SF Hep B Free, which screens for Hep B and educates the Asian population on getting vaccinated against this “silent killer:’’ Those afflicted rarely know they have the disease until they show symptoms, by which time treatment options are limited or ineffective.
Emily became an “ambassador’’ with SF Hep B Free, joining three other SF State nursing students -- Mark Christian Razvi, Elaine Pham, and Margaret Huynh -- on a volunteer leadership team. The four future nurses were strangers to one another, arriving at SF State from all over the Bay Area and the Central Valley. They couldn’t meet in person: No classes together at SF State, no Hep B screenings at health fairs and churches in predominantly Asian neighborhoods. They’d meet over Zoom to coordinate outreach -- via phone and internet -- to lobby community leaders, Asian organizations, physicians, clubs and clinics to educate their communities about Hep B. It wasn’t ideal. They missed the in-person contact with the community, those moments when you can actually witness the impact on a client. They learned how to adapt to the circumstances: You help however you can.
“The experience with SF Hep B Free reinforced what it means to me to be a nurse,’’ says Elaine Pham, who is from San Jose. “I knew from young age I wanted to pursue medicine. When I was a kid, I always saw health-care workers as heroes. I really like the education aspect of nursing: We’re the ones who educate our patients how to keep themselves safe even when they leave the hospital.’’
Margaret Huynh, the eldest child of Vietnamese-Chinese parents, says she learned a lot during her year with SF Hep B Free that will help her navigate the challenges of what she hopes will be a career in a pediatric intensive care unit. “What I’m good at is compassionate communication,’’ she says. “People are scared about getting vaccinations, whether it’s COVID or Hep B. You have to explain why it’s important. You have to connect.’’
Mark Christian Razvi, born and raised in the Philippines, wants to help lose the huge disparity in access to healthcare. “Since Hep B is prevalent in the Asian communities, being a Hep B ambassador gave me the opportunity to step up in the community I am familiar with and allow me the chance to educate, advocate and break down barriers.’’
SF Hep B’s aspirational goal is to make the Bay Area the first region in the nation to eradicate Hepatitis B and liver cancer. Since their inception in 2007, their campaign has reduced infection rates in San Francisco from 1 in 8 to 1 in 12.
In July, three of the four ambassadors finally met in person. Emily, Elaine and Margaret met up at San Francisco State for the portrait with this story, sporting their San Francisco Giants jerseys – and their stethoscopes.
Ella Jordan is the introvert who thrives in the spotlight. Riley Berg is the extrovert hidden behind a mask. Together they’re a devastating pitcher-catcher battery who happen to be best friends and who, alongside their Lowell High School teammates, laid waste to the San Francisco AAA-CIF softball league in May.
Given that their entire COVID-shortened season amounted to just three games (two other games were never played due to forfeits), you might question how much devastation a single team could possibly wreak.
Here’s how much:
Lowell scored 40 runs and gave up just one.
Every game was stopped after five innings by the 10-run rule.
Every pitch of those 45 innings began in Ella Jordan’s hand and, except for a few foul balls and one infield grounder, ended in Riley Berg’s mitt.
Jordan struck out all but five batters over the three games.
But it was in the third and last game that Jordan and Berg produced their masterpiece. They played as if crouched inside each other’s head, carrying on a conversation only they could hear. Berg’s fingers flicked a series of signals, and Jordan threw, like a silent call-and-response. One after another, the batters went down. Only one made contact, bouncing a grounder to Jordan, who made the out at first. Every other batter struck out.
In this final game of their high school career, this final game together as a battery, Jordan and Berg were, literally, perfect. They accounted for every single out.
Longtime Lowell softball coach Sascha Ray was not surprised.
“They’d been practicing together for months, just the two of them,’’ she said of her senior co-captains. “So when sports returned in May, they were so on-point, while a lot of others were pretty lost.’’
A few weeks into the summer last year, Jordan called Berg to say she was antsy to get back on the field. Their 2020 softball season had been called off just one game into the AAA-CIF schedule. There was no telling if there’d be any games in 2021. They knew their off-season work might be for naught. No matter. Jordan wanted to play just to play.
“Ella’s kind of a softball nut,’’ Berg says. “A huge fanatic about it. She always wants to go and practice.’’
“I found something I was good at,’’ Jordan says, explaining why she loves the game so much. “I don’t really stand out in any other way. I literally just have softball. I’d go practice every day if I could. Riley has more things to do.’’
Nearly every week through the summer, fall and winter, the two athletes met at Balboa Park, sometimes Kimball if Balboa wasn’t available, with a bucket of balls, a few bats and catcher’s gear they borrowed from Coach Ray, plus a bow net that Jordan (?) brought from home. Jordan had the routine all in order: laps, stretch, throw, hit, pitch. They practiced for hours, whatever the weather, week in and week out. Their bond as friends and battery mates grew tighter as the months unfolded and as their senior season loomed on the horizon.
They’ve been inseparable since freshman year at Lowell, though they first met at age nine on the same Little League team. “She was the better pitcher at that point,’’ Jordan says. “I was trying to be the best. So I always say, Riley is the one who made me a good pitcher.’’
At Lowell, they were throwing partners during pre-game warm-ups, developing an end-of-warmup ritual of Jordan making an underhand toss to Berg, and Berg tossing it back to Jordan. They rode home from school together on the M train to the Church Street Station, and from there walked to Jordan’s house in the Castro. Berg would continue on Church to catch the J train to her own house in Crocker-Amazon. They often eat out, searching for places in San Francisco that have the best coffee or best mac-and-cheese.
Jordan describes herself as reserved and unremarkable -- except when she steps on a softball field. Then it’s like she’s throwing off sparks. “For me, the attention and pressure make me better,’’ Jordan says. “It’s a rush. A thrill. It creates this really good energy, especially when your entire dugout is cheering you on.’’
Coach Ray says if the league coaches were to vote on a AAA-CIF Most Valuable Player, as they usually do, “I think Riley and Ella would have shared the award.’’
When future generations look at Lowell High School’s record books, the 2020 and 2021 softball seasons will be represented by little more than asterisks. They won’t know that those two years were so much more. In a small corner of San Francisco in the midst of a pandemic, a team, a coach and especially two young women named Ella and Riley found friendship and hope, and delivered a glimpse of perfection.
The bouncing basketballs reverberate through the phone like rolling thunder, which 21-year-old Janice “JJ’’ Conley no longer even hears. She talks right through it. She has lived her whole life in Bayview/Hunters Point. It can be a noisy place.
The basketballs are good noise.
They’re the sound of the Willie Mays Clubhouse, the name given in 2007 to the Hunters Point Boys and Girls Club. It’s where Conley spent nearly every day of middle-school and high school. And it’s where she is again -- now with a title: Junior Giants AmeriCorps Ambassador.
“This is a true full circle moment for her,’’ says Chrissy Camilleri, Junior Giants Coordinator for the Giants Community Fund. “The Ambassador when JJ was a Junior Giants player told her that one day she could be an Ambassador —and she did it! When I interviewed JJ back in February for the position, I hired her on the spot. She had the passion we were looking for.’’
Conley is a genius with the middle-school crowd at the Willie Mays Clubhouse, perhaps because that time in her life was particularly miserable. She was bullied at school because her skin was “too dark’’ and her hair wasn’t smooth and straight. But she didn’t talk about it, or about the trauma at home from family members’ abuse, drug addiction and violence, or the pain and anxiety of shuttling from one unfamiliar foster home to the next, or how, as a kid herself, she found herself shielding her younger siblings from gunshots outside their window.
Her life, she says, was “crazy growing up, and still crazy to this day. Childhood trauma is a real thing. And it comes back to catch you sometimes.’’
The Willie Mays Clubhouse was a refuge then, and it’s a refuge now – for the children she mentors and for Conley herself. “I missed being in an environment where I can be myself,’’ she says of the Clubhouse. “I missed playing baseball!’’
Her main focus is to help the children transition from the cocoon of elementary school to the social, racial and cultural minefields of middle school. There are no how-to list for the task Conley has taken on, except to show up and listen and, of course, play some ball.
A Giants fan herself, Conley gets her kids to pull on their Junior Giants T-shirts and go outside to throw and hit and cheer for one another and just have fun together. “Since she came on board in March, she’s been re-energizing the Club’s dedication to the Junior Giants program,’’ Camilleri says. “She helps them fall in love with the game of baseball.’’
She helps them fall in love with art, reading and basketball, too. Truly, whatever she’s selling, the kids are buying. Conley has the natural charisma of a leader and the fierce focus of an activist. At 17, she was the Boys and Girls Club “Youth of the Year’’ for all of San Francisco. The same year she traveled to Ghana with a youth group and learned the proud history of her West African ancestors. During their time there, she was introduced to a prince from one of the many ethnic tribes. Smitten with Conley, the prince asked her to be his wife. She politely declined, but a new image of herself took root:
“I am a beautiful African princess,’’ she says.
That’s the sense of self she wants for all her Willie Mays Clubhouse kids, the ones who think of themselves, as she once did, as less worthy of attention, safety and success. Shifting the narrative inside their heads, Conley knew, had to begin with her -- with an assist from Willie Mays.
Conley knew almost nothing about the legendary Giants outfielder when she became a regular at the Clubhouse at the age of 12. For a Clubhouse project, she and a group of other kids each studied an aspect of his life. Conley learned that Mays often couldn’t stay in the same hotels as his white teammates because of his skin color. She learned that even as a big baseball star in San Francisco, people didn’t want him moving into their neighborhood. Conley also learned that through the racism and indignities, Mays stood tall. He didn’t let anyone else tell him who he was. He knew, and that’s all that mattered.
“I work with black and brown kids,’’ she says, the basketballs in the Clubhouse gym still thumping through the phone. “We do not get a lot of opportunities because of the color our skin. I want them to always know they’re not alone. I want them to have the opportunity to be somebody. I’ve never actually met Willie Mays, but the impact he’s had, it’s almost like I have met him.’’
Conley is a student at City College when she’s not molding Junior Giants AmeriCorps Ambassadors and beautiful American princesses at the Clubhouse. She wants to become a nurse practitioner who specializes in labor and delivery.
In that way, her future career reflects her current one.
“I want to bring beautiful lives into the world,’’ she says.
The 2021 baseball season for San Francisco public high schools had been shortened to just four games, squeezed in at the tail end of the school year when COVID restrictions began to loosen. One game a week for four weeks. But the only one that mattered to the Lowell team was May 12 against Washington High.
“We all had our eyes on that game,’’ said senior team captain Jack Schonherr.
There had been no summer ball or fall ball, and for the second year in a row, there would be no official league champion. But in the minds of the Lowell boys, the face-off with Washington, their longtime rivals, would be their de facto championship game. The boys had been getting together around all year on their own, long before they knew they’d have these four precious games. They’d gather at West Sunset field in early evening. Some brought buckets of balls. Others brought bats. Most of the guys had known each other since before middle-school. They were tight, and no one needed a tribe around him more than Anthony Serrano.
His family fractured during his sophomore year when his parents went through a difficult divorce. Serrano helped out his now-single mother however he could, picking up his little brother at school or shopping for dinner. His grades suffered. Then COVID hit. And there every day were his teammates, lifting him up.
Finally in April, San Francisco Unified allowed official practices to begin. Lowell is in the Sunset District: No sun for weeks, sometimes months. Early morning practices meant fog so thick and air so cold players wore four layers of clothes and wished they had five, though no complained. “They just wanted to play and be around each other,’’ said their coach, Daryl Semien. “They approached every practice, every groundball like they were playing for the World Series.”
The big day arrived. Lowell and Washington fans lined the bleachers at Big Rec, a beloved neighborhood field in Golden Gate Park that nonetheless fell short of Oracle Park, where Lowell had won the league championship in 2019, dog-piling on the same hallowed grounds as Giants’ stars Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford.
Neither Lowell nor Washington scored in the first inning, or the second, third or fourth. In the fifth, Semien sent Schonherr in to pitch. No runs from either team in the fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth. Schonherr had yet to give up a hit.
Now to the ninth, each team holding fast.
Schonherr led off with a walk, Mark Zhu singled, and Michael Leung bunted them over to second and third.
And who comes up but Anthony Serrano.
On a 1-2 count, he smokes a fastball away for a single over second base, scoring Schonherr and Zhu.
Now, bottom of the ninth. Lowell with a 2-0 lead. Schonherr returns for his fifth inning of relief. Two ground balls and a fly ball later, Schonherr has thrown 71 pitches and given up no runs, no hits, and just a single walk. The game is over.
There is cheering but no dogpile. The Lowell players understood that the victory was personal, meaningful only to themselves. Lowell went on to win all four of its games and, as the only undefeated team, finished at the top of the standings. For the 12 seniors, high school baseball was over. Schonherr had thrown his last pitch. Serrano had taken his final swing.
“I’ve never been prouder of any group of players,’’ Semien said. “They’re city kids. They’re gritty. They stick together and do the work.’’
At West Sunset field a week or so after the season, the 12 seniors showed up with plastic bats and yellow plastic balls to play Blitzball, a game sort of like wiffleball. They snapped ridiculous curves and sinkers and crushed monster home runs, having a grand time. They looked like the kids they surely once were – that so many of us once were -- playing out the dream of baseball in their backyards.
Later, Serrano thought about his four years at Lowell and his game-winning hit against Washington and the times at West Sunset when it was just the guys from the team playing ball. “Sometimes,’’ he said, “you get the dream.’’