During the 2012-2013 school year, the Rams launched a new community outreach program called Rams Blitz: Youth Working together to Break Through Boundaries. This year, student leaders from Normandy and Affton high schools participated in the second-year program aimed at promoting cultural diversity and trusting relationships. The program, which wrapped up earlier this month, arms student leaders with the skills and knowledge they need to become leaders of diversity and inclusion issues in their personal lives, schools and communities.
Rams Blitz encourages program participants to look beyond their day-to-day comfort zone by building a common bond through a year-long program of repeated interaction and focused training including: character development, leadership and facilitation skills and diversity workshops. Over the course of five months and five collaborative events, more than 100 students from Affton and Normandy High School participated in team building exercises and inclusion training. Students also discussed issues such as gender, racial and sexual orientation discrimination and reviewed tactics that will empower them to be agents of positive change in their communities.
Purposefully, the settings varied as much as the curriculum. Each school hosted an event and two events were hosted at the Rams Training Academy. The program spanned from September to April, providing the students with an opportunity to build long-term relationships from reoccurring meetings. The students also bonded over a social outing at a St. Louis Rams home game.
The Rams Blitz program is the first of its kind in the St. Louis region and no one can speak to the impact of the program quite like Normandy High School head basketball coach Terrance Hamilton.
“There were a lot of myths that existed, and a lot of those myths were broken down,” said Hamilton. “I think it was valuable to both parties. There was a bonding that wouldn’t have taken place any other time.”
For Reena Hajat-Carroll, executive director of Diversity Awareness Partnership, it was an honor to be part of the Rams Blitz program.
“In a year following a great deal of negative attention around schools in the St. Louis region, it was such a pleasure to work with these 100 students from Normandy High School and Affton High School,” said Hajat-Carroll. “At each session, the students demonstrated their willingness to learn, to engage with people who were different from themselves, to break down stereotypes, and to be leaders in creating more inclusive communities. The program positively impacts not only the students themselves, but also their schools, families, and the St. Louis region as a whole.”
For Hamilton, the work of three months’ worth of collaboration came to fruition this winter. Normandy and Affton are both members of the same athletics conference, and in a regular season basketball game, the relationships built over the course of the year proved pivotal. Hamilton, Normandy’s boys basketball coach, looked on as a situation that could have proven difficult instead turned into a scene of camaraderie and mutual respect.
“There was an incident,” Hamilton said. “We were at Affton and one of the kids at Affton was fouled really hard by our kids. They picked him up after they fouled him because they had developed a relationship. They were still competing, but they didn’t want to hurt him.”
Stories of the program’s impact come from all directions. Diane Stirling, professional development coordinator for CHARACTERplus, remembers one incident in particular that helps highlight the impact of the program.
“One Normandy football player said something at the end of that October session that stayed with me,” said Stirling. “He said he didn’t expect to find racial discrimination, but he was braced for intellectual discrimination. He felt Normandy students would be seen as second-class because the district’s loss of accreditation was all over the news. Instead, he felt immediate acceptance for who he was.”
Stirling attributes this acceptance to a strong curriculum.
“By the time 100 young athletes and leaders from Affton and Normandy High Schools explored their leadership styles and the values that were important to them, they discovered more than common ground,” said Sterling. “They found friendship.”
Molly Higgins, Rams’ vice president of corporate communications and civic affairs, credits the program’s success to a variety of factors.
“As a professional sports team, we are fortunate that we can usually get the attention of students,” said Higgins. “The critical thing to us is that once we have their attention, we need to make sure we have a meaningful message to share. We also want to make sure we teach them ways to help spread that message within their circles of influence.”
That’s where the Diversity Awareness Partnership and CHARACTERplus come into the equation.
“As a community outreach department, we always talk about the importance of partnering well with subject matter experts, and Rams Blitz is a great example of a successful partnership,” said Higgins. “The expertise that DAP and CHARACTERplus brought to the program provided the students with a truly substantive and meaningful experience. The conversations and exercises that they led opened a lot of eyes and more importantly minds. Because of Rams Blitz, our hope is that these kids will become proponents of diversity and inclusion for the rest of their lives.”
New to the program this year, the Rams hosted a blog competition that allowed participating students to discuss their Rams Blitz experience. The team then chose one winner from each school, who was awarded tickets to a 2014 Rams home game and also had their blog published on the Rams web site, which you can find below.
West Lindor, Affton High School
Prior to participating in Rams Blitz, I wasn’t really sure of what to expect from engaging in a program with different students. I wasn’t sure if I should be sociable, ecstatic, or even apathetic. My social and ecstatic side planned on talking to multiple kids about sports, music, and etc. But my apathetic side wasn’t sure if we would be accepted because of the gap between race, location, and educational opportunities. Gratefully my classmates and I embraced the Rams Blitz organization and we were exposed to a new environment in a positive manner. Normandy and Affton played multiple trust building games, participated in diversity issues, and we also sacked some stereotypical thoughts that have been unfortunately provoked through assumptions. My greatest experience throughout Rams Blitz was visiting Normandy and having a major discussion over society. As a whole, we attacked society’s flaws and compared our everyday similarities and life experiences. As expected, we all shared many interests and the only obstacle that hindered our bonding was simply our locations. This obstacle can easily be hurdled by planned outings and contacting each other via text, or any social media website.
The most crucial aspect that I learned from Rams Blitz was that cultural, racial, and ethical values simply cannot isolate a community. These aspects allowed me to never assume things just from observation alone, but to embrace differences and try to fix them. Neglect, hatred, and ignorance are the only barriers that can intercept the link between Normandy and Affton. Thankfully, both schools have been able to set aside their differences through Rams Blitz and we can resolve our issues together. In the future I will use the knowledge learned from Rams Blitz so that I can lead not follow. This spectacular organization has changed me into a different person and in the future, I will stand up for what I have learned and not be ashamed of it.
Jessi Watson, Normandy High School
Being a part of the Rams Blitz Program made me realize a lot about myself. I never really imagined myself getting along with people the opposite skin color as me. I realized that just because someone’s skin color isn’t the same as mine it doesn’t make them different from me.
I feel like they choose the perfect schools for this program, with all of our differences we were able to get along better than I expected. Affton is mainly an all-white school and Normandy is mainly an all-black school. Personally I didn’t think this was going to go well because Normandy had just lost a game against Affton like a week before the program started and I didn’t know how we would act towards each other.
When I first met some of the students at Affton I just assumed that they wouldn’t like us because of what they might have heard about Normandy. I liked the fact that we got the chance to express our opinions about Normandy and Affton. It really sickens me to know that people think Normandy is filled with violent students and some of the things that people say about Normandy and Affton are nothing but rumors. Normandy students aren’t violent and Affton students aren’t racist. It warmed my heart to hear the students at Affton say that we are some of the sweetest students they’ve met. This program taught me to “never judge a book by its cover”.
My favorite experience throughout this whole program was when we first met. This was my favorite part because it was nothing like I imagined. We all got along and became very comfortable with each other. I learned that a lot of us had a lot in common; most of us there were athletes.
The Rams Blitz program will always have an impact on my life because I will never forget what I learned during this experience. I learned to hold conversations with people I barely knew, and that I can always use in life because I’m always going to run into people I don’t know. I just wish my whole school could have been a part of this program then maybe they’d look at things differently and wouldn’t feel like the world is against Normandy, cause being with Affton I didn’t feel left out or different in any way. I’m glad I got the chance to be a part of the Rams Blitz Program. Honestly this has been my favorite memory of my Senior Year so far.