Before this tale of heroism begins, the heroine would like to make one thing perfectly clear. She doesn’t consider what she does heroic.
What’s more, Lisa Busbee-Young says her contribution to a better society is, in a way, self-serving.
“This is the feeling, right here,” she says one afternoon at Merritt College, choking back tears as she shares yet another experience of a life saved through her Starlings Oakland volleyball program. “I told myself I wasn’t going to cry, but & You know, it’s this feeling. It sustains me. It’s like I need it. And every time I feel like I can take a break from it, something comes up or something happens that brings that feeling back, and I realize, ’OK, Lisa, get back to it.’ ”
And then she gets back to teaching volleyball. And life skills. And responsibility. And how to care for others, including those far less fortunate. And in so doing, she saves a life.
Then she saves another. And another.
“Without Starlings, without Coach Lisa, I don’t know where I’d be,” says Ariel Gabato, 18, a product of Young’s program who will be a sophomore at Cal State Bakersfield. “I wouldn’t be where I am right now, I know that.”
Where Young usually can be found when she’s not working full time as an office assistant at Merritt College is in a gym using a ball, a net and a court as her classroom. As the head of the Starlings Oakland, Young oversees a program for girls ages 9-18 that, in the mission statement posted on the program’s website, “encourages teamwork, health, positive life skills and academic achievement.”
The volleyball isn’t bad, either. The Starlings compete at USA Volleyball’s Junior Olympics level against teams from Berkeley, Richmond and San Leandro, and they regularly post strong showings at national tournaments. At a national meet in San Diego earlier this month, the Starlings’ 12-and-under team finished fourth and the 14-and-under team finished third.
That said, this story isn’t about the wins on the court as much as it’s about the victories off it. Young has been selected as one of three finalists to represent the Giants in Major League Baseball’s and People Magazine’s 2010 All-Stars Among Us campaign, and not because of anything that can be reflected on a stat sheet.
That said, one stat does jump out: number of children.
“I have to share her with all the other hundreds of kids she has,” says Amecia Young, 22, who along with twin brother Amel are Busbee-Young’s only offspring. “In the beginning I didn’t enjoy it, because, you know, she’s my mom. But after a while, it didn’t bother me, because I saw all the wonderful things that were coming out of it and all the ways my mom was touching so many.”
Gabato is just one of them. She says she was homeless for a time in her life and directionless for much longer. Now, she’s carrying a business marketing major, participating in a sorority dedicated to community outreach and helping Busbee-Young at every opportunity.
Then there’s the story of one player for whom Busbee-Young assumed guardianship — “It was the beginning of the school year and her dad was stuck in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina,” she says. “I mean, what would any normal person do?” — and the scores of others about girls who were en route to living on the street.
All rescued because, as Gabato says, “Starlings found me. I didn’t find them.”
Such a statement would probably set the tears a-welling again for Busbee-Young, who shows off a drill-sergeant mentality befitting her six years in the military much more often than an emotional one.
Starlings Oakland is in its 12th year, and in the early days, much of her time was devoted to finding a place — anywhere that had gym space. As Busbee-Young puts it, “in Oakland, if there’s a gym, there’s basketball going on in (it).” So introducing a sport “that, let’s face it, has always kind of been considered an elitist one,” she says, “was probably the most difficult thing in the beginning.”
Yet, the experience also brought together clearly the concept she wanted Starlings Oakland to convey. Namely, that the respective worlds of elitism and poverty should not be so foreign to each other. She learned that after her own volleyball skills took her to Tuskegee University, an all-black college in Alabama, after growing up in the state during a time of segregation.
“That’s one important thing that we do,” Busbee-Young, 50, said. “We talk to these kids about the fact that we’re really not all that different and that we have ways we’re alike more than ways that we’re not alike. We teach them that in the heat of battle, in the heat of life, when you’re a team, you really only have each other. And it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your background might be. At that moment, you only have each other.”
As if to emphasize the point, Busbee-Young is quick to spread the success of Starlings Oakland to others. She would rather that headlines go to Lee Wagner, who founded the Starlings Volleyball USA programs more than 20 years ago. Or perhaps to Byron Shewman, who helps her raise the $100,000 per year it takes to operate the Oakland chapter.
“This is not a Coach Lisa production,” Busbee-Young jokes. “It takes a lot of people pulling in the same direction to make this happen.”
Thing is, the direction must make sense, because Busbee-Young never seems to lack those volunteering to get on board.
“I could say volleyball was what gave me direction and focus and motivation, but really, it was Coach Lisa,” Gabato says. “Through volleyball, she taught me responsibility, life skills, how to be there for my friends and for my teammates. & Even now, when I feel like I can’t do stuff or my life isn’t what I want, I realize, through her, that it’s up to me to take charge of my own life. That’s a pretty powerful thing to learn, and when you learn it, you just want to share it with others and it kind of builds that way.”
All of which figures to elicit another reminder from the heroine that, well, she’s not extraordinary in any way.
“I just am trying to do what my mama always taught me,” she says. “You can’t reach everyone. But say I can reach 10 or 20 kids. Well, then those 10 or 20 kids might reach another 10 or 20 kids. That’s how you change the world. Is that heroic?”
Hometown Heroes, a partnership between Bay Area News Group-East Bay and Comcast, celebrates people in the Bay Area who make a difference in their communities. In addition to highlighting remarkable individuals, the Hometown Heroes feature aims to encourage volunteerism, raise visibility of nonprofits and key causes in the area and create a spirit of giving.
Read about a new Hometown Hero every other Monday and watch the program on Comcast On Demand at Channel One-Get Local-Hometown Heroes.
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