The excitement has been mounting all week since a plucky group of East Palo Alto boys learned they are heading to Florida to compete for the Pop Warner Football national title. The East Palo Alto Greyhounds, a group of 21 boys, have an unblemished 14-0 record this year.
But head coach Eric Stuart said the boys, who combine high scholastic achievement with sports prowess, face a mounting dilemma. They need $30,000 to get the team to Orlando to play at the Disney World Complex from Dec. 5 to 13.
The Jr. Pee Wee team is comprised of 10- and 11-year-olds who come from low-income and impoverished families, but they and their parents are determined to play in the championship game, he said. It's what they have worked for all year, getting good grades, training and practicing and staying out of trouble, he said.
So far, the group has raised $8,000 toward its goal. But time is running short. Only four out of 20 families can afford to send their kids to Florida. And 98 percent of the families are from East Palo Alto and have economic hardships, he said.
"It's hard to plan without a job or money," he said.
The boys are the the very first kids in East Palo Alto to compete for a national youth football championship. There had not been an association from East Palo Alto to ever compete in Peninsula Pop Warner Football, he said.
The team began in 2008 and played non-competitive Division 3 football through 2011. But last season, they had their first chance at competitive games, and they did not squander the opportunity. They finished second place overall with only one loss in the regular season in 2012, he said.
Stuart founded the East Palo Alto Greyhounds Youth Athletic Association in December 2005 as a track and field program. The kids began competing in 2006, and they garnered some impressive achievements straight off: In 2006, Warren Morrison, then 13, became the first Greyhound to win the 100 meters in a National competition in Eugene, Ore. In 2007, Willie Teo-Clifton, at age 10, finished 6th in the country in the javelin throw. Aishah Ahmad, 10, took first place in the 200-meter dash in a national championship in Hershey, Pa.
By 2008, the Greyhounds expanded to include football and cheerleading. Kids enrolled in the program must maintain at least a 2.0 academic average to play; most kids get As and Bs, he said. There are consequences for bad behavior and poor grades. A school suspension means not getting to play for a game, for example, he said.
Cultivating those values now will help these kids succeed in the future, he said.
"What you do at home and at your educational institution is the most important thing in your young lives right now," he tells the kids. "When they get into high school, they understand the school stuff comes first. You can't make it through high school, you can't make it to college and a career if you don't do well in school," he said.
"We have a lot of love. The kids buy into that. They work hard and they do some extraordinary things," he said.
The boys are selling raffle tickets for someone to win an iPad. The raffle takes place Dec. 21, Stuart said. But to get enough money in time, the Greyhounds have set up a donation page on their website at www.epagreyhounds.com/Donations.html. On a webpage directed at foundations, the team asks for donations of $500, which it states is also tax deductible. But Stuart said individual donors are welcome to donate as much as they can.
"If people can only donate one dollar they're welcome to," he said.
A breakdown of costs for the trip is available on the site.
"We have survived because of foundations and donors. The contributions that have been made to our organization have assured that we have stayed afloat through the years. We are continuously fundraising ... We will not leave anyone behind, but with help, we can make sure of that," he said.