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The Community Plays It Forward

Article by Heija Nunn

Photography by Life N Light

Originally published in Bellevue Lifestyle

A penthouse private dining room perched 31 floors above Bellevue might seem like a strange place to gather in support of a non-profit founded on grassroots and grit, especially when the last event was held in a gym. But on this Thursday night, skyline views, sparkling champagne and elevated cuisine became an unlikely supporting backdrop for a celebration of community, the power of relationships and big goals for the next decade of students and mentors.

Rainier Athletes, a nonprofit dedicated to youth mentorship and empowerment, hosted its first person event in two years, an inaugural celebration of “Playmakers” on Thursday, May 19 at Ascend Prime Steak & Sushi.  The event gathered legacy supporters, longtime mentors and successful graduates of the Rainer Athletes program to hear Tod Leiweke, CEO and co-owner of the Seattle Kraken, talk about the importance of mentorship while presenting the first Corporate Playmaker Award to Ascend Hospitality Group.

Founded in 2013, Rainier Athletes executive director and founder, Jesse Franklin, a graduate of Sammamish High School, along with a small, but mighty staff, and an army of volunteer mentors, has partnered with the Bellevue School District to identify and nurture local student athletes and their families through one-on-one supportive relationships. He says, “At our core, Rainier Athletes is simply a community.”

Over the last ten years, RA has worked to build a mentorship movement that expands access to opportunities for youth that have been historically left out. “Our model is designed to reach beyond sports, beyond the students, and beyond the mentors,” says Jesse. “Our community of supporters, those who continue to step up and walk alongside us, make it possible to walk alongside Rainier Athletes youth and their families. I am grateful to honor Elaina Morris, CEO and President, on behalf of Ascend Hospitality Group, with the 2022 PlayMaker Award as they continue to join us in our mission to expand access to mentorship, connection and community.”

The Rainier Athletes long term mentoring approach has proven itself over the last decade. From serving three students in 2013 to 120 students in 2022. This June, they will applaud a third cohort of students, all who first joined RA as fifth graders, as they graduate from high school. All of them have the potential to be the first generation of their family to graduate from college.

Even during the pandemic, RA staff facilitated over 5,000 virtual mentor-mentee check-ins. The results of that commitment are clear in community feedback. In the last teacher survey, 95% of respondents reported that RA directly increased their students’ sense of belonging. One teacher said, “RA is giving students the social opportunities they so desperately need in our post-remote learning world. Students are able to connect with one another in authentic, less academic ways and in a more identity-affirming space.”

The pandemic increased the need for authentic human connection and left many young people feeling the lingering effects of loneliness. This past year, 1 out of 4 students in Bellevue reported having feelings of self-harm. Rainier Athletes hopes to meet the growing need by pairing every student on their ever growing waitlist with the dedicated support of a one-on-one mentor. To reach this goal, RA has expanded their board from five to 13 members and significantly increased their investment in mentor recruitment.

The Board of Directors is eager to grow the mentor model beyond athletics. Ally Svenson, Board Member and Co-Founder of MOD Pizza, recognizes the power that mentorship can have whether the young person is "a singer, a painter, or a dancer.” Board members include experts on youth development, education, business, human resources, community engagement, and philanthropy. Board president Betsy Johnson adds, “The passion and skills of our new board will help provide vital mentor relationships connecting kids with activities that interest them.’

Back to that party at Ascend. After surprising Bellevue Mayor Lynne Robinson, with a fiery birthday cake, Rainier Athletes Board Member and Corporate Playmaker Elaina Morris, and RA supporter Tod Leiweke, inspired the crowd to “Play It Forward in the Sky”  through real time text donations, raffle purchases and lively bidding on a one-of-kind Kraken experience.  Spoiler alert: it quickly became five-of-a-kind, and combined with early donations and sponsorships, sped the small group fundraiser to $150,000, double the goal and enough to add many more students to the RA roster and directly benefit programs that level the playing field for some of the 3500 Bellevue School District students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch programs.