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Breaking down the barriers

The basketball was still new to her, an object that could be controlled with careful hands.

Yaremi Mejia, a dark-haired fifth grader who spoke little English, dribbled baseline to baseline without picking up the ball as many of her peers inside Oak Grove Elementary School struggled to emulate her.

Tom Cole, the executive director of Kids Unlimited, couldn't take his eyes off the scene.

"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, who is this kid?'" recalls Cole of his first encounter with Mejia in 2005.

Later that year, Mejia — who had never played an organized sport and knew no one when she and her family moved here from Los Angeles — appeared in a short season wrap-up video.

"She said, 'I love basketball and I hope someday to grow up and for Tom to be my coach,'" Cole recalls.

Years later, her wish came true. Mejia, her English drastically improved, is a sophomore basketball player at South Medford High School and Cole is the girls head coach.

This season, the Panthers won the Southern Oregon Hybrid championship and advanced to the Class 6A state tournament, where they had the highest grade point average of any of the remaining teams. Mejia was named to the conference's first team and Cole was awarded coach of the year honors.

For her success, Mejia was selected to play in the fourth annual Mail Tribune All-Star Basketball Classic. When she steps onto the court to play in the all-star game at Kids Unlimited today, Cole will again be watching in fascination.

And they'll both be right at home in the gymnasium.

To Mejia, the building on North Riverside Avenue is a place where she can develop her skills. To Cole, the youth enrichment center is a structure of hope and a spiritual safe haven. He's met youth who remind him of himself and his peers as boys and young men. The building draws out Cole's strongest conviction: that kids need a chance, that they deserve love. He's seen strife, felt pain and experienced devastation growing up outside of St. Louis, but Cole feels the adversity led him here.

Along his way, he had several profound realizations. One of the most profound set him on his philanthropic track and inspired him to create Rogue Valley's premier youth enrichment center: "I realized that I was very fortunate," he says. "That was the single greatest recognition, that I could help others."

Cole created Kids Unlimited in 1998. The program was moved from Main Street to the old 32,000-square-foot Medford Lanes bowling alley in 2005.

Cole's mission has been to break down barriers that prevent children from participating in after-school activities.

"Finances, transportation, forms that are only in English and no communication with parents," Cole says. "To get kids involved we have to look at all those things so every kid gets an opportunity, whether they are Latino, white, black, rich or poor. You are finding a way to motivate a kid to be successful in school."

Mejia, like many others before her, found her motivation on the hardwood. She participated in Medford Rogue Rotary Club basketball games around Jackson County and at the west Medford youth organization, which offers after-school academic and extracurricular programs.

Mejia, now 17, expresses joy and gratitude when she talks about her first encounter with Cole and the basketball program.

"I thought, 'Why not try it, because it was free,'" says Mejia, who has four sisters and two brothers. "In L.A. it was just school and home. It was so much fun playing here. I feel so special now when I meet with people who knew me when I was younger and they say how proud they are."

One of Cole's quests has been to better integrate the Hispanic community into Kids Unlimited activities.

Oregon schools had 115,103 Hispanic students (or 20.5 percent of the total student population) enrolled as of October of this school year. In Medford School District 549C, 2,579 of the 12,583 total students are Hispanic, including 19 percent at South Medford and 16.7 percent at North Medford, according to an Oregon Department of Education report. Jackson Elementary has a 49.2 percent Hispanic population, followed by Washington (42.9) and Oak Grove (28.2), which Mejia attended.

There were roughly 47.8 million Hispanics living in the United States in 2010, according to a U.S. Census Bureau population estimate. By 2050, it is estimated that there will be 102.6 million Hispanics living in the U.S. (24.4 percent).

Kids Unlimited has helped produce understanding and support for different cultures within local elementary, middle school and high school programs.

"Latino kids, Latino girls are trying out for sports," Cole says. "That never happened 10 years ago. And in most communities, it still doesn't happen. Not because other programs discriminate, it just has to do with the removal of barriers."

The state is listening. Cole was recently named to an investment team focused on laying the groundwork for potentially sweeping reform in Oregon's education systems. Gov. John Kitzhaber established the 13-member Oregon Education Investment Team, which is scheduled to submit a model report on May 31.

"The real story is what can happen across the state and in other communities," Cole says. "What can we do if we really try to remove all the barriers to participate?"

Locally, the impact of KU programs can be seen clearly on the South girls roster. More than half of Cole's team, including Kylie Towry, Lupita Vargas and Luisa Tago, participated in programs at Kids Unlimited, which is a nonprofit agency.

"I didn't need another job when I came to South," Cole says. "I decided to take on the (head coaching position) because of the kids. I realize how amazing the journey has been from starting it and watching the kids get the chance to now."

St. Mary's Emily Alvarez, Jasmine Alvarez, Domonique Valdez and Veronica Valdez are also KU alumni.

Vargas's oldest brother, Beto, recently graduated and received a Bill Gates scholarship to attend Bowdoin College in Maine. He, too, is a Kids Unlimited alumnus. Additionally, Vargas's younger sister Daniela and younger brother Javier are involved in KU programs.

"I started in first grade and had a spark of interest for basketball," says Vargas, who is a 16-year-old junior and a 4.0 student. "Luckily, Tom was there to help me pursue it even more."

Cole's journey to Medford began in Missouri, where he was often the minority growing up.

"My background allowed me to see things in a different perspective," says Cole, who graduated from Waynesville High and Missouri State University (then called Southwest Missouri State University). "The culture was just different. I was always exposed to a very different population, and that allowed me to appreciate diversity."

In 1990, a 19-year-old Cole was dealt a tragic blow when his 19-year-old girlfriend was murdered in Kansas City.

"When Brenda was murdered, it was a real wake-up call," Cole says. "I was just numb and, quite honestly, somewhat in denial.

"I almost never forgave myself for that."

The inconsolable occurrence prompted Cole to see life with a different purpose, realizing how fragile life can be.

"Unfortunately, I found more people around me who were content with living unhealthy lifestyles," Cole says. "Many of my peers were willing to live their lives making poor choices."

Now, those experiences give him strength and knowledge, allowing him to connect with children who have faced a variety of hardships.

"There's nothing you can expose me to that I haven't already seen or lived through," he says.

"You realize kids just want to belong to something. While we don't have the same ghettos and housing projects that exist in larger cities, some variables are the same. Poverty isn't about what you don't have. Poverty will always be when you don't have hope, when you don't believe you can be something or dream. That is when you see poverty."

Cole moved to Southern Oregon in 1995 after being involved in Missouri Boys & Girls Clubs that were encompassed by poverty and crime.

Cole's local basketball roots began to take shape when he helped form after-school programs at Oak Grove, Jackson and Washington Elementary schools. During a study, Cole was stunned to learn how few children at the high-poverty schools were participating in athletics.

"Each school had 400 or 500 students, but out of all the students at those three elementary schools, only about eight were playing winter sports," Cole says. "It was shocking. We realized it's not because they didn't want to, but because they didn't have the financial ability to. The other barrier was transportation. Kids needed to get to practice but parents were at work or had domestic duties. They couldn't do it. Basic survival superseded the needs of kids to be involved."

Another one of Cole's concerns was that grade-school students would not be prepared to participate in middle school or high school sports without being predisposed at an earlier age.

With all this considered, Cole formed a team of boys mostly from low-income Hispanic families. The squad not only succeeded, but "was really, really good," Cole recalls. "And the bigger picture is the kids on the team went from kids in gangs and dropouts to students of the year and straight-A students."

The Kids Unlimited Rotary program, now in its eighth season, has provided students like Mejia with free opportunities to compete at Oak Grove, Washington, Jackson, Howard and Roosevelt.

"The Medford Rogue Rotary Club realized if we did this with 10 kids, we could go into elementary schools and offer something so that when they get to middle school they would be ready," said Cole. "Seven years later, Rotary basketball has gone from 150 kids to 1,200 kids served. Kids aren't charged anything to do it. They just have to keep a good standing in school."

Mejia says the academic encouragement she received at Kids Unlimited was motivating.

"They make you do your homework first," she says. "That was really good for me."

And Mejia has paid it forward, offering her knowledge as a volunteer.

"I remembered when I was younger I used to always travel (on the court) and didn't know how to play," Mejia says. "Tom taught me so much, and now I am in that place, trying to teach. I want to help kids out, show them how to dribble, set screens, shoot."

After the Panthers' state playoff victory over Glencoe on March 5, members of the South team signed autographs and posed for pictures with a large group of Kids Unlimited students.

Cole, holding back emotion, couldn't take his eyes off the scene.

"You see all those younger kids looking up to them, thinking I can be that someday," Cole says. "It made me think back to what an old coach told me. He said sports doesn't build character; it reveals it. You see the character as it unfolds."

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or e-mail djones@mailtribune.com

Tom Cole, the executive director of Kids Unlimited, stands above Olsrud Court. - Bob Pennell