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Former Seahawk finds helping at-risk kids far more complex than imagined

Students at Chinook Middle School in SeaTac take part in a team building exercise developed by the Mack Strong TEAM-WORKS foundation. (Facebook image)

Former Seahawk Mack Strong and his wife Zoe always knew they wanted to give back to the community and help kids struggling with difficult life situations, especially since both came from challenging upbringings. But little did they know how much that would actually entail.

The couple formed the Mack Strong TEAM-WORKS Foundation in 2002 during the peak of his successful NFL career. Their original vision was to provide tutoring and other academic support. Then they quickly realized that wouldn’t be enough.

“One particular family that really motivated us had eight children living in a van and they were struggling in school,” Zoe says. “And as we got in to help them tutor, we realized they needed help in life, they needed food, they needed shelter, and they weren’t going to succeed in school until we got them all that help and served them holistically.”

Their ambitions and their program grew quickly from there. The Strongs partnered with families, schools, charitable organizations, corporations, state and tribal governments in communities across the Northwest. Together they created customized programs for at-risk youth emphasizing the development of character, social skills and healthy lifestyles that improve academic outcomes.

The foundation originally focused on kids in extreme poverty with an emphasis on the Native American community, inspired by Zoe’s upbringing on the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho.

“These are the kids that are actually often dropping out in middle school. So we started middle school and grade school interventions to help kids stay engaged. But from there we realized in many other minority communities, there was a large drop out problem in the Hispanic and African American communities, as well,” she says.

It wasn’t long before they also realized they needed to work with the whole community, not just kids.

“Many live with their grandparents and their aunts and uncles and their distant cousins. When we serve the child, we serve their families, we serve their communities, we try to strengthen the very classroom they attend.”

The foundation has just five full time staff members, highly trained program managers and mentors who recruit and rely on dedicated volunteers.

They recently staged a sports and leadership camp at a Northwest reservation with professional and collegiate athletes, backed by 60 community volunteers teaching far more than just how to throw a football.

“And then we really got into helping them in their life and then afterwards we trained mentors to stay in their life for the next year to follow up with them.”

The foundation has plenty of success stories. Zoe beams when she recounts one girl who joined their program after getting kicked out of one middle school and dropped into another.

“She was very quiet, hardened, angry, wouldn’t engage in school. Our mentors worked with her tutoring and in class. At the end of the school year, when we were sending everyone off and saying goodbye, she just broke down in tears and just held on to us and hugged us and didn’t want to let us go.”

Zoe knew she had changed, but didn’t realize just how much. Then the girl returned several years later to her former school, proudly sharing she was excelling in advanced placement classes and planning for college.

“So that to me, was one of the greatest testimonials, that not only did she make it with us, but she’s succeeding in high school now.”

The Strongs would like to reach a lot more kids. They currently serve about 350 in schools across Washington state, but say with more funding they could expand their mentoring staff.

“We hear every day about the need. In one school we’re covering two classes but would like to cover all of them. Students need consistency throughout the year. So we really do need more funding to hire more mentors that can commit, even if it’s a small stipend, to a full year.”

The stations of Bonneville Seattle, The Seattle Seahawks, Les Schwab Tire Centers and Carter Subaru are proud to honor The Mack Strong TEAM-WORKS Foundation as our charity of the month.

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