12 Sep The Early Years of R.O.C.K.
The Early Years of R.O.C.K.
An interview with the visionary behind Real Options for City Kids, Michelle Groe
By Hayley Walker, Marketing & Development Coordinator
I recently had the opportunity to ask R.O.C.K.’s founder, Michelle Groe, some questions about the early years of Real Options for City Kids. As you might expect, Michelle is an incredibly passionate, driven, and intelligent individual—it’s no wonder we’re still doing this important work 25 years later.
HW: Michelle, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I have so many questions, I don’t know where to start! So, I guess we’ll start at the beginning—when you first founded R.O.C.K., what was the driving force behind your actions? Give us the backstory of how and why you came up with R.O.C.K.’s vision.
MG: From the time I was 14 years old, I spent one weekend a month at Los Niños in Tijuana, sharing life with orphaned infants and toddlers whose family lives had been upended by poverty. Working and sleeping beside them over the next four years—listening to the border alarms sound through the night and imagining what my life would be like if it were landscaped like theirs—changed me. From a young age, I understood how privileged I was to have what is often considered quite basic in America: a warm bed, running water, three meals, and an education. At the same time, my teenage perspective was exponentially richer because of my little friends in Mexico and while I didn’t know then, these same children would come to shape my vocational narrative and change the trajectory of my life.
Fast-forward to my 21-year-old self, newly graduated from college, and living in Janis Joplin’s old house in the Haight-Ashbury. Now I was working with homeless adults and young families, again surrounded by people whose lives had been fractured by poverty and paralyzed by the absence of opportunities I had long taken for granted. I loved my work among these new “friends,” and I found joy easily discoverable in the midst of their authenticity and courage. Still, after several years immersed in the Haight and later the Tenderloin, what I found myself really wanting to do was invest in the lives of children. My dream was to create opportunities for little people to experience a deep sense of belonging in a community that regularly offered them opportunities to contribute and succeed. I wanted young people to know from an early age that they were seen; to know they truly mattered. I wanted children to experience what it felt like to be caught in a hammock of support, despite growing up in a distressed and often violent neighborhood, and for them to know they were not alone. I wanted real city kids to have real options for a life worth living and feeling excited about. It was from that vision that R.O.C.K. was born.
HW: Wow, that’s incredible! It’s obvious that you have been a true servant leader throughout your life. After working in other parts of the city, what made you start this work in Visitacion Valley, as opposed to other neighborhoods?
MG: As a resident of San Francisco, I never considered leaving the City to start a program elsewhere. Still, in our first year, we didn’t exclusively serve Visitacion Valley. We had multiple programs throughout the City including Bayview/Hunter’s Point, Hayes Valley, the Richmond, and the Sunset. Initially, we had additional programs such as “Authors in the Schools” where we hosted children’s book authors and illustrators from NYC and various publishing companies to share their stories and successes with our R.O.C.K. students.
In our first year of programming alone we served more than 1,500 kids throughout San Francisco, and then we paused and evaluated what our real vision was for children. Remembering my desire to create a community where children were truly known and nurtured, we significantly scaled back in year two and focused solely on Vis Valley. In the early 1990’s, there were very few youth-centered programs in Vis Valley, and even fewer programs for girls. In fact, R.O.C.K. provided the very first girls sport programs in the Valley. Prior to our arrival, there were only sport programs for boys and even those were geared towards student-athletes who were willing to fight their way onto the court or field with little to no guidance or adult care.
HW: That’s incredible, I didn’t know that R.O.C.K. helped jumpstart sport programs for girls in Vis Valley. What else did R.O.C.K. bring to this neighborhood?
MG: We sought to reduce the student to adult ratio significantly and for kids to truly feel like they belonged. At the time, Vis Valley was also experiencing staggering violence including rampant drug dealing, shootings, and frequent killings. The Geneva Towers still shadowed the neighborhood, quite literally, and the Sunnydale Housing Projects were riddled by crime and its residents by fear. It wasn’t uncommon for our R.O.C.K.-ers to experience the loss of someone they knew and loved. Our model of providing a 1:3 ratio of adults to kids was perfect for this community and for what kids (everywhere) need, and it soon became evident that Vis Valley was a perfect home for R.O.C.K.
HW: What programs or activities took place during the early stages of R.O.C.K.? Which programs came later?
MG: I’ll send you our original brochure. From the beginning, we had on-site learning enrichment programs, after-school homework assistance and sport programs, Saturday Skill Drills, and our week-long summer residential camp. SALT began around 1997.
HW: Awesome, I can’t wait to see the OG R.O.C.K. brochure! In your opinion, what made—or still makes—R.O.C.K. unique? How do we stand out from other youth-serving organizations?
MG: I think what makes R.O.C.K. most unique is our volunteer model and low adult to child ratio. R.O.C.K. staff choose to be there because they value young people, end of story. Their “compensation” is inestimable: a child’s welcoming hug; their smile upon being called by name in a tone that communicates value and honor; their pride in learning a new skill, mastering a concept, acing a test.
Volunteers show up because they value these kids and understand the life-changing power of presence. Many of our volunteers in the first decade were investment bankers and start-up founders, destined for a high-powered career with financial abundance. Many of those same volunteers discovered a joy and passion among R.O.C.K.-ers that compelled them to leave their careers, re-focus their education, and return to a life dedicated to making a positive difference in the world. Curt (R.O.C.K.’s current Executive Director) is a perfect example! Love makes R.O.C.K. unique, and our commitment to do things simply but exceptionally well in a community that often receives leftovers, hand-outs, and second thoughts.
HW: Simply but exceptionally well, I love that, and I agree that all of those things make R.O.C.K. truly unique. Taking a look back, what are some of your favorite memories of R.O.C.K.?
MG: During our first year of implementing R.O.C.K. sport programs, we only served girls because there literally wasn’t a single program for them in Vis Valley. At the time, soccer heroes like Mia Hamm were inspiring women and girls everywhere to rise up and play. It was an exciting segue in the world of sports for females. But what we started noticing were the little hands and feet and eyes of young boys peeking out from bushes surrounding the field. They wanted to play too.
We learned a lot that first year about many things, but what sticks with me most was that every single child needs a place to belong. It didn’t matter what the color of their skin was, what their situation at home was, whether they liked sports or not—they all wanted to feel important to and noticed by someone. So in year two, we dropped the Authors in the Schools program and we expanded our sport programs to include boys. We still made special efforts to build bridges for girls, recognizing that their opportunities in the world were still limited, and we made space for boys to come alongside and participate.
HW: That’s amazing, and I can confirm that all of our kids—and every kid—still need a place to play, participate, and belong. Any other memories that stand out to you?
Another favorite memory is from 1997, when we partnered with Scott Whipple and Mountain Camp to bring 50 kids to Lake Tahoe for summer camp. It was hands-down one of the greatest undertakings we attempted at that point in our development, and the pay-off was inestimable. It was so much work to get everyone there—packed (imagine borrowing 50 sleeping bags!), bussed, mentally, and emotionally prepared to leave the neighborhood—many for their first time, 20 volunteers recruited and trained after their willingness to take a week-long vacation from work to sleep in yurts with young children. Every single day I would receive multiple phone calls from Raymond, our 8-year trailblazer. His bags were packed and beside his front door for weeks before the bus departed, little G.I. Joe men strung together and hanging off of his duffle bag ready to go. “Michelle, how many more days until the bus leaves?” he would ask. Three times a day. For close to a month. Eventually we made Raymond a calendar to hang by the door where he checked off the days—I suspect hours—until he left on his first vacation ever.
Our week outside of the City in a place that was unfamiliar and a bit overwhelming to all our kids was the greatest equalizer ever! We accomplished more in the way of teamwork, relationship-building, healing of distressed relationships, and understanding of differences in that single week than we did in the three years prior. I’ll never forget a young girl grabbing my hand as we stood beside the lake at nighttime and asking, “Is that what a star is?”
I’m forever grateful to Scott for trusting us with his property, and coming alongside us in our vision to provide R.O.C.K.-ers with this life-changing experience. His friendship and support were—and still are—priceless. All that said, when those little R.O.C.K.-ers climbed on the bus to return to San Francisco, I remember waving goodbye with a small group of friends and then just crying, overcome by an overwhelming sense of joy and pure exhaustion!
HW: I feel like Raymond some days, just counting down the days until the next trip to Mountain Camp! I had the honor of attending this year, and you’re right—it’s such a beautiful, emotional, and life-changing experience for our kids and our staff.
Now, looking forward a bit. Do you have any hopes for R.O.C.K.’s future?
MG: My hopes for R.O.C.K. haven’t really changed over the past 25 years. My dream has always been that R.O.C.K.-ers, would feel seen; that they would know they matter—not just to one person, but to a whole community. That they would feel like their stories—their hearts, minds, and passions—are valuable and that they are loved. Our kids and families—ones like Meryllia and Hilda and Raymond and Mario—have shown us now for more than two decades that they are strong and resilient, brilliant and creative, powerful and humble.
I deeply believe that most people wake up every morning and do the very best that they can with what they have. It may not always look like that from the outside, but I think it’s true and I feel like I witnessed that all the time among our R.O.C.K. kids and families. Life in Vis Valley can be really hard, and kids experience things at an early age that no child should ever have to hold. Still, they keep rising up and trying. The fact that they trust R.O.C.K. staff and volunteers to share life with them is truly a grace—something I never took for granted. I have so much gratitude for the ways their stories and lives landscaped my own life and expanded the rooms of my own heart. It was a privilege to be a small part of their stories.
A huge thank you to Michelle for taking the time to share with us, and for her 25 years of dedication to R.O.C.K. We (quite literally) would not be here without her.
If you’d like to make a contribution to support R.O.C.K.’s mission and vision for years to come, please considering donating to our 25th Anniversary campaign.