Georgia Tech track stars give Atlanta kids a running start

Georgia Tech track teammates Preston Smith, left, and Andréas Ward, right, shown here after a 5K race with the children they coached through Foreverfamily.

Georgia Tech track teammates Preston Smith, left, and Andréas Ward, right, shown here after a 5K race with the children they coached through Foreverfamily.

This is a lovely and inspiring column by a recent Georgia Tech grad. Preston J. Smith volunteered to coach Atlanta kids in a program for children with an incarcerated parent, and learned a lot about struggle and determination.

By Preston J. Smith

For the last four years, I was fortunate enough to compete on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket's track and field team as a triple jumper, traveling the east coast with my team and training daily on the Georgia Tech track. Pulling off a great triple jump is exhilarating: first the running approach to jump, then its three phases, and finally the landing. "Landing the jump" is a magical feeling, almost as if you are flying through the air.

I felt the same exhilaration coaching children in one of Atlanta's oldest historically black neighborhoods through an organization called Foreverfamily, which provides love and support to children with an incarcerated parent. Becoming part of the children's support network was one of the most meaningful experiences I had in college.

My own path to Georgia Tech was made possible by just such a support network, primarily my parents, who remain the most influential people in my life. They developed my intense work ethic at a young age and were always in the audience for elementary school chorus performances, driving me to math tournaments, and cheering me on from the stands during baseball games and track meets. My older brother gave me a blueprint for what it would take to be successful.

My head high school track coach singled me out and inspired me to think big, while my teachers and counselors made me aware of exactly what it would take to be accepted to a school like Georgia Tech. I also had a close group of friends that competed in everything from who could make the best one-handed catch to who would be the first to touch the backboard of a hoop. I studied and practiced hard to get into the Georgia Institute of Technology, but I had a deep, supportive group of people who kept me focused and inspired me every step of the way. I was honored to become part of a similar network for Atlanta’s children.

While Georgia Tech is in the heart of Atlanta, its green, park-like spaces and close campus culture can make you forget the rest of the city. I fell victim to that isolation during my freshman year. It was my first time living in a big city, and I wanted to make sure my priorities were straight, so I kept my head down, focused on my courses, and put the rest of my energy into track.

But at the end of my first year, I wrote a paper on the role of mothers in children's lives, connecting Shakespeare's classic King Lear to sociological studies about children's fundamental needs. My research led me to understand that a staggering 2.5 million U.S. children are left behind each year by an incarcerated parent. I also researched the profound physical, mental, and emotional effects on children because of a parent's arrest and incarceration. That research (and my track skills) led professor Sarah Higinbotham to recruit me as a coach for children who have an incarcerated parent. The goal was to prepare them to run their first 5K.

Georgia Tech athlete Preston J. Smith’s triple jump graduation photo.  

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I recruited a Georgia Tech teammate Andréas Ward, and we became "Coach Preston" and "Coach Dréas" to the kids every week on the Old Fourth Ward track, Cheney Stadium. We drove only a few miles from Tech's campus to the track, but it quickly became a different world – leaving the state of the art, immaculate academic and athletic facilities of Georgia Tech for a part of the city with very few green spaces and almost no grocery stores.

And yet the kids would climb out of the Foreverfamily vans full of excitement and the fun began. Foreverfamily’s founder and director, civil rights leader Sandra Barnhill, believes in empowering other leaders and she gave us complete autonomy to coach. So Tuesday after Tuesday, my heart would soar at the kids’ smiles accompanied with a chorus of greetings to “Coach Preston.” We taught the kids to stretch and led them in the dynamic drills that college athletes use before practice and meets.

Lap after lap, I ran right beside them, learning a little more about each of their aspirations, challenges, and lives. I attempted to prepare them for the upcoming years by connecting my life with theirs and telling them that their dreams were possible. After practice, we sat on the track, ate fresh fruit or cold popsicles that we brought, and talked about what had been gained by the exercise and shared community. I listened as they talked about being bullied at school -- studies demonstrate that prison-connected children are at risk of stigmatization by peers -- and their fear at being outside in the neighborhoods, and thought about how different my life at Georgia Tech was from theirs. I walk confidently around campus without fearing for my safety and practice on a premium, Olympic-quality track without a second thought.

On the morning of the 5K, I was confident the kids were ready. There was a buzz of adrenaline-charged excitement among the children as they were surrounded by other runners and Foreverfamily’s enthusiastic supporters, people entered to run the 5K, and fun activities like music, face painting, and clowns. With all of this going on, we gathered the kids to settle them down before the start of the 5K. I gave my last motivational words before we toed the line. As the race progressed, it was obvious that all the training and long hours paid off: the kids were giving one hundred percent effort, being competitive, and treating it as a race.

The kids blast off to lead the start of the 5K.

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Most of them finished the race without even walking once. The joy that exuberated from the group once they finished paralleled how my teammates and I celebrate one another’s personal records at our collegiate meets. Completing a 5K is as much mental as physical, and most of the children never ran a distance close to three miles in their lives, but, now they knew they could do anything they put their minds to – especially with people guiding and encouraging them.

Witnessing all the children’s hard work pay off was exhilarating, much like the feeling of a great triple jump. I was deeply gratified to coach them every step of the way and to help them to “land the jump.” Foreverfamily is providing lifelong impact to Atlanta’s children with an incarcerated parent, and they also provided me with the opportunity to be part of the children’s lives.