Mexico, the Congo and Vietnam are just a few of the native countries of the teenagers who make up the City Heights Runners.
It’s a local running club that’s opened a new track to success for dozens of teens in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods.
The club took its first steps six years ago as a running program for middle school students who wanted to continue competing in track and cross-country at Crawford High School and nearby rival, Hoover High School.
The club’s coaches quickly realized they had tapped into something more important than just athletics.
“I remember when we started, there were four athletes who would show up consistently,” recalled coach Tlaloc Venancio. “Now we have two sides of the neighborhood working out together."
Many of the club’s runners are still learning English and speak different native languages. But founding coach Chris Brewster said City Heights Runners is bridging those gaps while changing lives, improving grades and breaking barriers to success for his diverse team.
"We’ve created a model of what it looks like to love your neighborhood, meet needs, and build relationships with families, and to really understand the obstacles they have on the way to college or careers," Brewster said.
Those needs can be significant. Many of the club’s 60 runners come from homes where English is a second language, their parents often working multiple jobs to pay rent and buy groceries.
Crawford High School junior Nader Ali lived in Sudan and then Egypt before arriving in City Heights in 2015. Ali joined the City Heights Runners in 2016 because he wanted to go to college. He is now a CIF Champion runner, and on-track for college. The coaches teach the runners about nutrition as they train 50 weeks out of the year.
For Ali, the club is like a family.
“Yes, running changed my life. I now eat healthy and I really care about school." Ali said.
After-school activities aren't always an option for many of these students, especially young women like Kassandra Elias, a senior at Hoover High School.
She and some of the other girls are often expected to come home right after school, to babysit younger siblings, and cook for the family.
“But this program, I've managed to become a successful athlete and I'm also encouraged to go to college,” Elias said. “There's a lot of resources and our coaches believe in us.”
City Heights Runners is a program of Urban Life, a Christian organization with a mission to help transform neighborhoods through community development initiatives. The groups fundraise on their own, to buy running shoes for those who can’t afford them, and pay for training camps.
The runners also learn to pay it forward in their communities. Kenia Rendon is proof this model is working. Rendon was with the City Heights Runners from the beginning, first as a student runner, and now, after graduating from college, as a coach.
“City Heights Runners completely changed my life," Rendon said.
Rendon said she sometimes feels like a team mom. She said coaching these teenagers is challenging but worth it.
“At the end of the day, you know you’re there for a purpose: to love them. It's all worth it,” Rendon said.
Coach Venancio gets emotional when he talks about the positive impact the club has on a community that most San Diegans don’t even know exists. Venancio said regardless of who wins a track meet or cross country run, it’s obvious that City Heights Runners has created a winning formula for its students.
“Success looks different for a lot of people. For us, success means changing people's lives." Venancio said.
For the students, their biggest competition is not with each other, but instead to air for what they say is the real prize: a sense of belonging, purpose and hope this team provides.
"They work a lot,” Nader Ali said of his teammates. “They always cheer me. I always cheer them. We're always on each other’s side.”
“The team changes you. That team environment makes you a better person," Kassandra Elias said.
Their story is Inspiring San Diego.
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