Eyes on the Prize: Coaching for Change
Many, many years ago, my third grade teacher, who I don’t recall as a woman prone to smiling, told me that she could tell my dad was smiling the whole time she spoke to him by phone about the hundreds of handwritten “I will not talk in class” lines I owed her.
At the time, I thought my smile-averse teacher was ridiculous, but I recently found that you can hear smiles, and there were many when I first talked by phone with Clarence Collins, a Jersey City gem. Popularly known as Coach C, by day he is on staff at the University Academy Charter High School at NJCU which has an enrollment of 430 students Coach prefers to call “scholars for a whole lot of reasons.” He is also the founder and president of the Woodlawn Avenue Block Association (WABA), an entrepreneur, family man, venture capitalist, and more.
From the Boogie Down to the Chilltown
The Bronx native who came to Jersey City 19 years ago says one of his fondest recollections of Jersey City is very close to home. Upon first arrival, one of the things he appreciated about his new neighborhood “was the uniqueness, size, and intimacy of it but the only problem was there was no one that made a connection. Everybody was locked in their own world; no one hardly spoke, and people just passed each other by and things of that nature. The New York in me wasn’t quite used to that, and it bothered me for years, especially when I started working in Jersey City. So I decided, along with a couple of residents, to start a block association about four and a half years ago. It was rough at first; folks didn’t want to participate but at the first meeting we had about 15 households represented. Then it started picking up some steam.”
WABA began hosting block parties, the first being on a 106-degree day in August 2015. Just before Thanksgiving of that same year, the group distributed 75 turkeys donated by WABA members, the Jersey City Police Department and county executives. “It was great to be able to see people from different ethnic backgrounds come together in ways you couldn’t imagine,” Coach recalled. “We’ve gone from being a neighborhood that was so divided to now, when our motto is ‘Together We are One.’
Woodlawn Avenue Block Association celebrates 4 years
“Now in our fourth year we’re able to see this community come together–really working class people, everyone pretty much votes and are homeowners–and we found that we have 41 different ethnic groups from one corner to another on one block. So when you talk about ‘Make Jersey City Yours’ or the diversity factor, I’m living it everyday.”
Now in his tenth year at University Academy Charter High School, Coach is still all smiles as he describes it as the best high school on the planet. He first began there two days a week to help develop a program for young men on a volunteer basis. The next year the school received funding to bring him on full time as an At-Risk Mentor.
“I am in the unique position of being in the trenches with the kids as they are trying to find themselves and develop their integrity. I’m watching them fight and struggle, but it’s not the content; they do not know what’s coming to them in life. They want to be great citizens, they want to help, they want to know about civics and entrepreneurship, but a lot of times you don’t get to see that [about them] at home in your community so you have questions and doubts.”
In the early days of meeting with students, Coach said discussions became a redundant and focused on gang violence, with teachers asking about student affiliations based on their attire. After coming on full time, he was about to counter those fears by developing ‘Real Talk with Coach C,’ a daily lunch session he begins each year with a personal narrative. “Dad was a heroin addict and my mom worked 60 hours at Verizon. We were so poor when I walked past the bank I tripped the alarm…I was a 15-year-old parent in high school; now fast forward to today, my granddaughter, who is 15, is one of my students at the school, and I have two successful businesses and own multiple houses.” In addition to his own ventures, Coach has partnered with mentees who have graduated and started businesses of their own.
Break out of Mediocrity
“I teach my kids to become allergic to mediocrity, so when you’re around someone who is average you should break out in hives, break out scratching with sores all over your body because of [the person] who operates in that mediocrity mindset. [I also tell them] it’s perfectly fine to care for those who need your attention but I need you to pay close attention to the path that has been created for you.
One of the first things Coach said when we first talked was “I don’t coach any sports; I’m just a life coach really big on working with youth and seniors in the community,“ yet he is not without sporting ways. “I teach my kids to jump off the cliff, and they ask, ‘What do you mean, jump off the cliff?’ I tell them don’t worry once you take a risk at life and jump, you may get bruised, you might get battered, you might get a black eye, or you might bump up against the mountain and bleed but don’t worry; before you hit the ground the Creator will open up your parachute and you will land in such a way that the world that saw you as a teenager will watch what happens when you become a young adult and be shocked. They won’t have a clue where you came from.”