Editor’s note: Community Builder is a periodic Q & A series providing perspectives from local people who have been involved in significant change in Southern Oregon. Today’s conversation is with Tom Cole, teacher, coach and founder of Kids Unlimited.
Q: How did you land in Medford? What was your journey to get here?
Tom: I moved out to Oregon in 1995 from Missouri. I had been working for Boys and Girls Clubs of America in urban areas and had found a passion. After graduating from college, I had an opportunity to come out here. I followed a college girlfriend, at the time, out here and ended up creating the first Boys and Girls Club in Jackson County in 1995. You know, I fell in love with the area; Southern Oregon is unique in a lot of ways. In 1998 we were dealing with this initial transition to a community that was beginning to face poverty, students of ethnic culture and students who had home-life limitations.
Q: What directed you to start working with young people as a career?
Tom: I grew up in a very diverse area. I had exposure to a lot of different elements, both positive and negative. And I had some experiences along that adolescent learning curve. Eventually, through college community service, I realized how important being a mentor can be. It really resonated with me. I found something that was more important than selfish pursuits many of us go through in our teens and 20s. Luckily, I found something I really enjoyed.
Q: Share a story that is an example of the rewards you receive in working with youth?
Tom: We had a young man in the mid-'90s, one of our first kids, who was a high school dropout. He was a graffiti artist, but he never had a formal art class in his life. By giving him an opportunity to express his natural ability on canvas, this guy has gone on to do two Olympic sculptures at international Olympics games, and he presented to former President Bush. It all started with opportunities.
The rewards today are awesome, a reflection of this journey with the organization. This fall will mark 20 years of Kids Unlimited. Those early years were about trying to just build a community awareness about populations of poverty and populations of kids who were struggling. Being an outsider gave me a different lens to see things. I could see the percolating climate of gang involvement and some of the disparities among our kids. A lot of our kids were growing up with a very different take on life.
Kids Unlimited now has adult board members who were kids in our after-school program. They became the first kids in their family to graduate from high school, the first kids to graduate from college. They have come back to take leadership roles in the same organization that helped give them a platform for their success. Some of our first kids now have children in our school. To see a full circle, it’s very validating.
Q: Do you have a philosophy that guides you in your work?
Tom: The philosophy from the get-go has always been about recognizing opportunities. All children have gifts, and it is our responsibility to figure out the opportunities that can be conduits to change their life. That lens of always trying to remove barriers has been a guiding philosophy of the organization.
Q: How did KU evolve into a charter school?
Tom: The story of Kids Unlimited is really one of opportunity. We didn’t start with anything, we started with a $500 grant. Our first after-school program started with about 85 kids in 1998 and it grew to a summer camp. We’ve expanded and evolved to after-school programs at multiple sites where we are serving close to 2,000 kids a week in Southern Oregon. The main anchor for all our programs was about the belief in education. If we are going to find success, we have to use education as the tool. Along that journey we found kids who were struggling with certain barriers for success … whether it was language or because it was for lack of finances or parent support they couldn’t overcome things.
When we created the school, we figured we could start with our most important asset, which was the relationships. As we were watching those first waves of kids who were graduating from high school, we started to recognize certain things. “Gosh, they need to really work on reading.” “They need to have a stronger foundation in this …" If we are telling our kids how important education is and how important a goal of going to college is, are we really providing them with the foundation when they really get that opportunity that they can be successful?
We went on this learning journey for about five years. We visited communities in New York, Georgia, Texas, California, Florida trying to find successful schools that had similar populations of poverty and cultural disparity. “Why were these kids so successful?” And that became our learning for moving a charter school forward. We knew we had to preserve the relationship piece where students can be loved first and foremost and embraced for who they are. We can do the work around driving them academically. This has resulted in the highest attendance of any school in Southern Oregon, even with the highest poverty rate in our region.
Q: I recall you saying that the key question in interviewing potential employees is “how do you give young people hope?” Please expand on that.
Tom: It has to start with, “Can you inspire your students to believe that what you are offering can help them become a better student, a better citizen, and eventually fulfill their dreams?” Hope is an incredible tool for motivating. Developing passion and hope is the foundation for all that happens.
Q: You have had a very successful basketball coaching experience at South Medford with the girl’s program. How did coaching come about?
Tom: Back in 2002, we had these boys at McLoughlin Middle School who shaved their heads and wore baggy clothes. The administration said, “Oh, my gosh, we have a gang problem.” All these boys were Latino, none of them were involved with extra-curricular activities, none of them played any formal sports, they weren’t involved in art, they weren’t involved with leadership. They had no connection to the school. We met with those kids and talked about who they are and what they wanted to be. What came from that was the first basketball program.
I loved playing basketball and had been involved in organized basketball in Missouri, running a ton of these competitive leagues. This first boys’ basketball team was undefeated. These kids were hooked, and more kids wanted to play. Those original kids started making middle school sports teams. Sports became this conduit to reinforce all those educational goals we were working on.
Then came the recognition that the most vulnerable group was Latina females. They were young ladies who had the highest teen pregnancy and highest dropout rates in Southern Oregon. Latina girls were saying, “Why can’t we play?” So we created the first girls’ basketball program. I started coaching, and it just caught on. These girls were looking for these healthy outlets, they were looking for the same things sports had provided for boys, you know; accountability, hard work, assist the team. Kids Unlimited created boys and girls youth basketball leagues that were tremendously successful.
At the same time South Medford had just come off a tough couple of years with the girl’s program. The athletic director at the time, Dennis Murphy, approached me about taking over the girls team.” Those kids from Kids Unlimited started to transition into high school. They were out of the west Medford neighborhoods and fed into the South girls basketball program. It has been a conduit to committing to education. We’ve now seen 19 girls go on and pursue full-ride college scholarships as a result of the program. Now I’m beginning my 11th year. It is just one of those things that parallels what the bigger work is.
Q: What have you learned about people in Southern Oregon from the work you have been doing?
Tom: Well, I always say, “This is a place where you can make change.” In 1998, west Medford represented three schools of poverty. Today Medford has more schools of poverty than do not. That dynamic has happened over the past 20 years. There were 7 percent Latinos in 1998, today’s kindergarten cohort in Medford School District in 2016-17 represented almost 30 percent. If you can make an impact in a rural community, you can make it anywhere. We have been here for a while, and our persistence has been a catalyst for others to get involved with the mission.
The most amazing piece about Southern Oregon is that you can feel and recognize what your work has done. You’ve seen kids graduate, you’ve seen them integrate into leadership positions and come back and make a difference in their community. I know there is more to come. We’ve created new norms, norms that all kids deserve opportunities regardless of their economic or ethnic backgrounds; all kids can be successful.
Q: What is Kids Unlimited doing to make the Rogue Valley better for its citizens?
Tom: One of the things we are working on, which is even bigger than our traditional programs, is neighborhood revitalization. The issues of poverty, blight and drug use create plagues. We are looking at it through a holistic lens. It’s not just a housing issue, not just an education issue, it’s not just a poverty issue … it is all those things. If we are going to be responsible for solving problems, we should find solutions that are encompassing of all those.
Q: You walk into the Kids Unlimited Charter and there is a beehive of energy.
Tom: We want our kids to feel loved. When you have them 10 hours a day and you have a relationship, it’s much easier because you have connectivity. Our greatest asset is the culture of the school and the ability of the kids to feel loved and supported. It doesn’t mean we don’t have the same dang challenges. The endorsement by our parents has been shared with their friends and family members. Ultimately other kids and families want to have the same experience. The waiting list at KU continues to get larger and larger.
We have a 90-year-old volunteer here who is an amazing inspiration in so many ways. Her name is Grandma Dorothy. Her wisdom is just unique. She can sit back and observe and reminds us that the best is yet to come. And it is true, it is a unique vantage point, but it is also gives us confidence that what we do can lead to better things.
Q: What are you most proud of?
Tom: I’m super proud that in my life that I can be a part of this. Truly. I consider myself really lucky to be in a place to influence. There were points in my life it didn’t look like that. I never had that confidence that I could be in that leadership role. The belief in “all kids” is just huge. I’m energized even on days that are stressful. I’m energized by just being able to come in here and go, “Wow!” Even though I can be frustrated by what it is not, I am still humbled by the things that are.
My hope is that Kids Unlimited someday shows student achievement that rivals a higher socioeconomic demographic, because then you know you’ve got a level playing field. We aren’t there yet; it takes time. We’ve seen huge gains, and that gives us confidence that we will get there. And the best is yet to come.
— Steve Boyarsky is a retired educator and longtime resident of the Rogue Valley. He continues to be involved in educational and youth programs.