When six-year-old Liz joined her first little league softball team in Washington Heights, she could barely say her name aloud she was so shy. She shuffled nervously around her teammates and rarely glanced up when the coaches encouraged her.
Week after week, though, Liz never missed a practice or a game. She learned to catch, hit the ball and even throw to first base. And she started to laugh. By the end of the season, whenever her teammates got a hit or caught a pop fly, Liz was saying a lot more than her name. In fact, she was the loudest player on the field, cheering and jumping and high-fiving.
That's when Ivelisse Fairchild, co-founder of the Ivy League: Uptown Women in Neighborhood Sports (WINS) and associate vice president of government and community affairs for Columbia's Health Sciences Division, knew she had to offer more programs for girls like Liz.
She and Al Kurland, a long-time community activist for youth athletics in Washington Heights, had been working with boys' softball and baseball programs in the neighborhood since 1990. They had started a cheerleading squad for girls in 1992 but quickly realized it didn't provide the same opportunities as a sports program would. So, by 1994, Fairchild and Kurland persuaded the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to grant them a permit and they started a girl's league with four teams. Liz was on one of those original teams.
Today there are fourteen teams for girls ages 6-21 who live between 155th and 218th Streets, river to river. Uptown WINS has expanded to include basketball and volleyball leagues, a Saturday morning tutoring and mentoring program, college and S.A.T. preparation classes, community workshops and a college fair. Over 300 mostly Dominican girls participate in one of the Ivy League Uptown WINS programs and Fairchild continues to oversee the program.
"We approached local schools and the community responded. We got a few grants and were able to run the sports programs with great success. But the league wouldn't have happened without the support of Columbia," Fairchild says.
After two and a half years, she quickly realized that these girls needed more than sports. Many were coming from families where girls were not expected to do much more than take care of the home. They were often told that extracurricular activities were for boys, not girls.
Fairchild initiated the academic and mentoring component of Uptown WINS and today dozens of girls have applied for college. Many have been accepted, three to Ivy League schools. Fairchild is looking forward to the day when one of her girls attends Columbia.
"The fact that they're applying at all is a miracle," Fairchild says. "We knew the sports programs would help counter the risky behavior these girls are exposed to all the time. And it has. We've seen fewer teen pregnancies, for instance, each year we've run the leagues. But we knew the major difference we'd make would be through academics."
Fairchild speaks from experience. She was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up in Washington Heights. As a kid, she was always looking for something to do. She played stickball in the streets and loved softball when she played short stop on her high school team. The confidence she gained from athletics helped her pursue her education when she studied psychology and sociology at Queens College. Now, in addition to an already busy life coaching in Uptown WINS, raising her family and performing her duties in government and community affairs, Fairchild has spent the last eight years earning two master's degrees from Columbia: one in psychology in 1995, and the other last year in public health.
"I know that sports alone won't open the doors of opportunity for women in this neighborhood," Fairchild says. "I believe the only way for minority women to get ahead is through education. That's why our girls know we're rooting for them, and it's why I've pursued education myself. I can't tell them to go to college if I haven't."
The first step in getting there, however, is signing up for one of the many Uptown WINS teams or programs, says Fairchild. And because resources for the non-profit community-based organization are limited, Uptown WINS relies largely on volunteers to help coach the teams and run the tutoring and mentoring programs. Fairchild's dream is to receive more funding so they can expand each program and reach more girls.
In the meantime, Uptown WINS is looking for volunteer coaches for the spring softball league which runs from April to June. Contact Debra Buxton, executive director, at 212-305-9750 for more information about volunteering and/or donations of products, services or funds.