Hillsides has partnerships with various schools in the Pasadena area, most notably Polytechnic. The union between the foster care organization and Poly began nearly 40 years ago and remains strong to this day.
Hillsides Tutor Coordinator Ian Lee praised Poly students for taking the time to tutor their clients, but working with an agency “dedicated to healing children and young adults, strengthening families and transforming communities through quality comprehensive services and advocacy,” he felt more could be done.
“I’m pretty sure I was the first one brave enough to ask, ‘Would you be open to hosting athletic clinics?’” Lee said. “We never really made a strong connection with an athletic student body group.”
That connection was forged three years ago with an unlikely group.
“Ian wanted us to have sports clinics after school and bring the team to perform drills and play with the kids,” said Poly Community Outreach Coordinator Renee Larios. “So I asked Chris [Schmoke], and I thought it would be a no. He just looked at me and said, ‘Set it up.’”
Schmoke took over the football program four years ago and was looking for an opportunity to get his players to make a difference in the community. He wanted Poly football athletes to “serve outside of our little bubble at Poly.”
“It gave us something to do together,” Schmoke said. “This is good for us. It’s amazing how little exposure we have to Pasadena itself. How few people we know outside our little circle of Pasadena Southwest Little League, South Pasadena or San Marino, and how little exposure we have to other people.”
Schmoke coordinated dates and times with Larios and Lee, and it didn’t take long for Hillsides children to make their way to Poly’s campus to play football with the Panthers.
“We were eager to go after it,” said senior John Genske. “I think they might not have been prepared for what we were doing, but we had a lot of fun and it was a good time.”
“It was fun to be with them,” said senior Brady Carter, who has been with the football program every year. “We’re out there and just playing football, which is what we normally do. A part of me felt like I was helping someone have an awesome hour or two when they’re normally having a rough day. We don’t know their situation, but we’re just here to have fun together.”
Poly soccer, basketball and track programs have since hosted clinics and games with Hillsides, but Lee said the kids are most excited when the football team visits or hosts a game.
“They have so much fun,” Lee said. “We truly learn what they say about Friday night lights is true. There’s something about the panache of a football team that brings a lot of attention with them. Nothing looks the same quite like a football player in uniform.”
The Panthers sacrificed time during practices to give the Hillsides visitors enough time to play on the field and enjoy some pizza. Practice is cherished by most football coaches because of the rules and limits imposed by the CIF Southern Section, but Schmoke never hesitated to give up his time for Hillsides.
“Poly football is different from a lot of programs because we hear every day, first and foremost, where our priorities should be,” Carter said. “Schmoke stresses it every day: Faith, family, school and then comes football. It’s hard to describe coach as anything other than a father figure. I go to him with any trouble involving school or family. He’s the first person I go to, and an amazing coach.”
Schmoke wasn’t always that way. The Poly coach played football at Gaylord High in Michigan and went on to play collegiately at Northern Michigan University as a defensive end. He admitted to being a prima donna and a competitive player, frustrating his coaches.
“I never really figured it out until I had been coaching awhile,” Schmoke admitted. “It took me a long time to figure out winning really wasn’t everything. It wasn’t the end all, be all. Part of that came from coaching bad teams.”
The young coach saw football in absolutes, and figured that a losing season meant he and his players failed. But over the years, he came to a realization that it wasn’t about the wins or losses.
“What I found out was that kids would come back on teams that were 8-2 and kids that came back from 2-8 teams talked about football the same way,” Schmoke said. “They talked about the experience. … They’re having a good time, and that’s the way it should be. It’s a game.”
Schmoke often preached this mantra to his players, but the coach walked the walk when the program set up games and clinics with Hillsides.
“One of the things Chris, our long-haired, bearded, tough coach, identifies himself as, is a Christian,” Larios said. “I didn’t know much about him, but being around him, he really embodies the values of his beliefs. He’s not Christian in name only. He walks the talk. He’s as intense as he is hilarious. He’s tough, but he’s got the softest heart. I’m completely moved by his effect on youth.”
Polytechnic Head of School John Bracker said Poly’s partnership with Hillsides only enriches a student’s experience, and Larios and Schmoke are examples of leaders who can make a difference within the community.
“The thing with Chris and all of our coaches is that the end goal is not football,” Bracker said. “They use athletics, arts and academics as a way to build character.”
Polytechnic students are required to participate in community outreach programs as freshmen, sophomores and juniors, but Schmoke doesn’t allow his athletes to use their time with Hillsides as community service.
“It’s not a service,” Schmoke said. “It’s not like we want attention for what we’re doing for them. What we’re doing is something together, not to show how good we are. It’s our thing. Look, there’s nothing wrong with cancer awareness or other things like that. I love the pink and playing for cancer research, but sometimes, I think the cause loses itself in the spectacle of it. We’re keeping it in our community, and if other things open up, we’d like to work with that too. If anything positive comes out of this experience, it’s people coming up to us to let us know of other opportunities so we could venture out and play with other kids. … I think our players buy into it, and that’s where I think they get the most out of it. It’s just the right thing to do. We’re just being nice to other kids.”
Carter noticed the program fully bought into Schmoke’s beliefs in the fall of 2015 after Poly suffered a tough semifinal loss at Nipomo High, which was more than a three-hour drive for the Panthers.
“In the locker room, all the seniors were emotional,” Carter recalled. “It was brutal, but once we got on the bus, everyone was happy about the season and cracking jokes. We were just happy to have things we have in life and the season we had. We got on the bus and spirits were high because we knew it wasn’t the end of the world. If you want to know how Poly kids can see past football, just get on the bus rides home after a loss.”
Schmoke hopes the relationship with Hillsides opens more doors with other institutions, organizations and football programs within the community.
“I’m not from this area, so I didn’t really understand it,” he said. “I didn’t know there were a lot of different sides of Pasadena. The only side I saw was Lake Avenue up to here at Poly. Being here longer and having my kids involved with brotherhood and playing in open gym basketball, I’ve had people tell me they didn’t even know Poly existed. Why aren’t we doing seven-on-seven sessions with Muir and getting to know more of our Pasadena community? I just want to work to have Pasadena be a community and not just bunch of different communities.”