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Rubama: Former Virginia Beach coaches giving back, making a difference at Renaissance Academy

VIRGINIA BEACH — Last week, the nation celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.

He’s remembered for his many powerful speeches and quotes, including one he told an audience in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1957: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’ ”

Those words ring loudly for a group of retired Beach District coaches.

And they’re not just listening. They’re doing something about it.

Prior to COVID, former Princess Anne boys basketball coach Gary Cason met with one of his mentors, former Tallwood boys basketball coach Johnny Pope, to talk about life.

Slowly, their group grew and now includes Thad Harold, Cadillac Harris, Ron Jenkins, Johnny Morris, Ricky Hailey, Mark Butts and Willie Maull.

The group stopped meeting when COVID hit, but got back together after it.

Harold, a former head football coach at Tallwood High, got the group involved as they read books to elementary students.

But they wanted to do more.

So this school year, the group — now known as Coaching Skills For Life — reached out to Renaissance Academy, an alternative school in Virginia Beach for students who have academic, disciplinary or behavioral problems.

Hailey knew James D. Miller, the director of alternative education at Renaissance Academy.

“I told him that a group of retired coaches and educators from Virginia Beach City Public Schools would like to be mentors to some of the youth there,” said Hailey, who coached boys basketball more than 30 years, including stops at Kellam and Ocean Lakes high schools. “He welcomed us with open arms.”

The group started mentoring at Renaissance Academy in November, and Miller said in that short time they’ve already made a tremendous impact.

“They’re meeting with some young men whose lives have not been very kind to them,” Miller said. “And so they’ve been able to talk with these young men, give them a positive potential outlook. They’ve given them hope, which is a huge thing for our students.”

The 15 students were divided up among the coaches. Many of them have no father in the house.

The coaches check their grades, talk to them about their behavior and about life. They try to motivate the students like they did their players on the hardwood, gridiron and track.

They eat lunch with them, have pizza parties, holiday celebrations, but mostly talk.

“It’s amazing the conversation that a Chick-fil-A lunch can generate,” Cason said, laughing. “It’s the camaraderie, and they look forward to seeing us. We want to encourage them to do better. At the end of the day, we have served our purpose of sort of being their encourager because who knows, they may not be getting that anyplace else.”

Renaissance Academy senior Ashton Leavy is so thankful for the coaches.

“My mom always wanted me to be in a program where a bunch of Black men come together to be mentors,” he said. “So this was a good opportunity for me. It’s like a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”

He said the coaches have taught him about leadership and goal setting.

“They’ve helped me to be successful,” he said. “I feel like it’s very important, and a great opportunity for me to become a great successful man when I grow up.”

What Miller liked most about the group is how they came in not wanting the easiest students, but the ones who can be challenging.

“I have to be honest, I’m a white guy, and I can say this, having African-American male role models for these students is extremely important and very impactful,” he said. “There are things that I can’t do that they can do. Our students are able to see these gentlemen and realize, ‘Wow, they’ve been successful. They’ve had good careers.’

“And their coaching skills, you don’t lose those when you retire,” he added. “If you’re a good coach in your career, you’re a good coach after your career. And their coaching skills are making a huge impact on the kid’s lives.”

Butts, who coached boys basketball at First Colonial for more than 30 years, remembers one encounter he had with a student.

“I had one of my kids ask me, ‘You get paid for this, right?’ And I said, ‘No,’ ” he said. “You should have seen the look on his face when I said no. He thought we were getting paid for this.”

Jenkins said he got involved because he remembered how his coaches influenced his life.

“That impacted me because they were always there for us,” said Jenkins, who helped lead Bayside to back-to-back state boys basketball titles in 1990-91. “I knew that was something that I wanted to do.”

He realizes that in some cases, their work may not be appreciated until later in life.

“It’s not what they’re doing now, it’s what they do 10 years after they leave you,” he said. “That’s when you see what kind of personal impact you had on a kid.”

Harold remembers the negative things he heard about students at Renaissance Academy. He’s glad he’s gotten a chance to see it for himself.

“You know what you hear. But it’s not what you hear, but what you see,” he said. “Going through the building, I realized these kids are very intelligent, but they made bad decisions.”

Hailey agreed.

“People think Renaissance Academy is for bad kids,” he said. “It’s not a school for bad kids. It’s a school for kids who made a bad decision. But those are good kids over there. They just need love, and that’s what we try to provide.”

Harris, a former football and track coach at Green Run High, said this opportunity is something the coaches don’t take lightly.

“It’s an opportunity to redirect young men who have taken the wrong path and found themselves placed outside their home schools,” he said. “We want to give them a skill set that will help them be successful and graduate. That’s the mission and what we try to accomplish with each one of them.”

Cason said he hopes this group can keep it going for as long as they can.

“It’s our way of giving back because we have a heart to give and we want to make life much easier for somebody else,” he said. “That’s what coaching is all about. You’re leading and being a positive figure in the eyes of young people who respect you. And that gives me energy to keep going.”

Larry Rubama, 757-575-6449, larry.rubama@pilotonline.com