A community of teachers, coaches, parents and mentors, Rainier Athletes empowers at-risk kids in our neighborhood with a sense of purpose

What if we all knew our neighbor's story and as a result we changed the way the mindset of the entire community

Photo of Jesse Franklin
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

A head start. It has taken most of my life to acknowledge this concept but it now fuels my gratitude. A head start positioned me to excel in school, graduate from college, and is the reason why recruiters stalk me with their job offers. Growing up white and affluent in Bellevue is about as big of a head start as one could ask for. But I never asked for it. Unlike many of my friends, I happened to be born with it. Without thinking too much about how or why, a head start propelled me through the system that a generation of other head starters had built for ME and for others who matched our profile. While I competed in the English dominated arena of organized youth sports, certain friends, I now realize, sat on the sidelines. I saw these same friends at lunch and after school but I rarely saw them in my honors classes. Today we are in different places. This begs the questions, what if THEY were born with a head start? What if they played youth sports, were motivated and challenged in school, and felt like they were living within a community built for them? It is difficult to recount the exact reason for why I started Rainier Athletes but when I look back at my life and reflect on my road to now, I cannot help but to picture those same friends from my childhood sitting on the sidelines. I now realize more than ever that I cannot relate to their situation but, despite it all, I find myself wondering how their life might be different today if they had been in the game with me?

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)



Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • Washington

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]


Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • Washington

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]


Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Driven by the unanticipated influx of diverse populations, the engagement gap created by language barriers, income-inequality, and social/ emotional/ cultural differences has widened in pockets of the community we serve. Lake Hills Elementary, serves a student population where 70% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, while in stark contrast, Medina Elementary, located only 3 miles away serves only 2% free/reduced lunch. As a result, the Bellevue School District is faced with severe problem; 30% of 6th-12th grades students report NOT feeling a sense of belonging. The vast majority of students report such feelings are those who receive free reduced lunch and/or from diverse cultures. Rainier Athletes recognizes the power of community engagement, and though sports, school and mentoring we can shift the mindsets of the popular to create a more inclusive community for all.

Regardless of wealth, culture, or test scores, children need to know that their unique voice is being heard. With the support of the most passionate educators in the Bellevue School District, Rainier Athletes identifies students who for some reason or another, have resigned towards apathy, and who's unique voice has been muted. In order to ignite a newfound sense of passion, purpose and perseverance Rainier Athletes rallies a community of core supporters to the conversation, a conversation centered around caring for a specific student with specific needs. The unique story of this student is amplified across the community- from each school they attend, to each teacher they learn from, to each coach they compete for.

Rainier Athletes in class "point system" captures the social and emotional development of each student on a daily and class-to-call basis. Rather than goals being set by some ambiguous third party, typically in the from of a standardized test score, we, the core supporters in a student's life (coaches, teachers, mentors & parents), and the student them self,  define emotional milestones that must be met in order for the student to participate in their weekend sports game.

Our approach differentiates from those of other organizations in the way that we partner with schools, sports leagues and other community partners. Our trained mentors go beyond developing a trusting a relationship with each Rainier Athlete, they connect the parents with the schools, bring the teachers onto the sports field, and the coaches into the classrooms. The results is a previously isolated student who feels a much greater sense of connectedness. 

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Growth (the pilot has already launched and is starting to expand)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

At the end of third grade River's father was deported to Mexico. River behavior declines to the point that he is placed in a special education program. His only passion seems to be on the soccer field. Liz, River's mother, is convinced by the principal to apply for the RA program. River is accepted and placed on a soccer team free of charge. He is given brand new soccer cleats, a caring coach, and a mentor who meets with River in class to review River's RA points for the week. River missed a game due to not meeting his goal one week. River's coach, teacher, mentor and parent all explain to River the importance of achieving in the classroom. 4 years later River wins a leadership award in 8th grade and begins mentoring the 6th grade RA's.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

-Rainier Athletes expanded from serving 18 students in 3 schools to serving 38 students across 6 schools. -RA went from partnering with 10 community sports leagues to 17. We went working with 20 coaches to working and training 42 coaches on best practices for supporting undeserved youth on their respective teams -Our 9 mentors went from receiving 1 hour of training to 16 mentors receiving 4 hours of training aligned with the social-emotional learning curriculum of the Bellevue School District -The Rainier Athletes in class point system elicited an average of 13 hours of additional 1-on-1 teacher-student conversations per student -RA middle school grades went from 40 F's and D's the first semester to 12 F's and D's the second semester - Next year we plan to work with 9 Bellevue Schools, including 5/6 of the title I schools and serving up to 75 of the hardest to reach students

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $100k - $250k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Last year marked the 2nd annual shape the Future Fundraising Campaign where we generated over $60K in donations from over 150 unique donors. This year we have already received $45,000 of family foundation grants and hope to triple the amount of donations we receive at this year's Shape the Future Fundraiser. We have just recently hired our first paid staff member, the ED, who will be leading the charge for fundraising.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

There are many organizations who provide mentoring and others who use sports as a vehicle to engage at risk youth. Jubilee REACH, our past fiscal sponsor and close partner in Bellevue, pays their staff to work in the schools and develop relationships with the at risk population. Big Brothers Big Sisters have volunteer mentors who tutor students in the same classrooms we are in. Our organization differs in that we mentor students both in and out of the classroom, we partner deeply with both schools and sports leagues, and thus align students' core supporters at every moment.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

School districts have recognized the importance of building a social & emotional learning curriculum into everyday classroom learning. The challenging part is educating the educators (teachers, coaches, parents and mentors) and convincing them to adopt the same lessons of self-awareness, cultural awareness, and equity into their own lives. If we are able to create an learning environment where educational success is measured on the basis of individual progress rather than aggregate end goals, students will persevere and they will continue to race through the end of their own finish line.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Word of mouth

Program Design Clarity

A) 5th through 8th grade boys and girls (and ultimately their families and teachers) who live below the poverty line, overtly lack a sense of purpose, and have demonstrated other characteristics that are considered "at-risk" for not graduating and/or not becoming productive community members (test scores, nurse visits, absences, behavior issues, etc) B) Each student is paired with a mentor who monitors each students completion of social/emotional development goals every day in every class C) Bellevue School District, twice per week, 2 hours in school, 2 hours outside D) Mentors / RA Staff

Community Leadership

1) We hold bi-annual teacher feedback sessions where all teachers who have worked directly with Rainier Athletes students join us for a workshop. Teachers provide feedback in multiple categories-delivery model effectiveness & efficiency, unique student impact, program's ability to connect student-school-family 2) RA staff train all league partner coaches on best practices for supporting undeserved youth. Communication, transportation, etc...

Age of Children Impacted

  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

We want to build a community model that can then be "franchised" to other school districts. We partner first with a school district and then the community around it (sports leagues, local business, other non-profits) in order to create collective impact approach and avoid duplication of efforts and promote efficient use of resources. We need to connect to key decision makers in another school district and another community's sports leagues...

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

We bring community into the lives of these kids through sports, school, and mentors. Most of our kids have not played on a sports team before and the families do not venture far from their homes bc most people look, speak and act different. Sports gives the kids and families something to be a part of. Next we bring the stories of our RAs into the community. The community recognizes their neighbors for who they are and adapts the old system

Leadership Story

My father is a doctor, a doctor who sees people for people & their people issues, regardless of class, color, or culture. The rich guy & the poor guy were treated the exact same way and I grew up knowing nothing just that. So when I chose my friends I chose them for their person, not for their materials. I didn't truly see, recognize and hear the differences until later on when I graduated from college & my friends were in very different places. I now recognize the inequities that exist in my city & feel the barriers they create between neighbor, more so if we do not fully call them to light.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

Wayfind Recipient SVP Finalist

1 comment

Join the conversation:

Photo of Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

Hi Jesse,
Thanks so much for sharing your important work! It sounds like you are achieving your goals! As I understand it your solution seeks to reach kids that are falling behind, feeling left out, underperforming in school, and coming from low socio/economic context, and to support them in a multi-pronged manner by way of coaches, mentors, educators, and parents. It also sounds like you're using the students interest in a particular sport as  motivation for meeting goals as designed by the student and his/her team.
I have a couple questions that will help us understand your solution even better...
You mentioned a social-emotional point system. Can you include some examples that illustrate that system to your proposal? Does your system include a method for turning the external motivation (playing in the sports game) into internal motivation - the kind of motivation that continues in a child's life even when there is no extrinsic motivation?
Do you have any testimonials that you want to include in your submission? It would be fun to hear some first-hand success stories.
Thanks for sharing your work!