RICHMOND, Calif. - Three members of the San Francisco 49ers spent their off day delivering good news to young people in Richmond.
"It’s my job, even after making it out, making it to the NFL, and trying to help and give back as best as I can," said linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair. "Let the kids know that they have somebody that’s been there and made it out."
Al-Shaair, Marcelino McCrary-Ball and lineman Spencer Burford paid a visit to Richmond’s RYSE Youth Center, spending time meeting and sharing experiences with the community members. The 49ers selected the non-profit to be one of the recipients of its social justice grants. "What’s so special about this organization is that it really is youth-driven," said Stacy McCorkle, 49ers senior director of community relations.
The players took a tour of RYSE’s facility, where young people of all backgrounds have created a community for and with each other. The staff and youth sharing a passion for social and racial justice. "This is a place where they can be creative, a place where they can heal, a place where they can organize it’s really about safety," said Kimberly Aceves-Iniguez, executive director and co-founded of RYSE. "Creating a container where young people can be their own selves."
Sunny Thomas calls the community at RYSE her family. "RYSE is everything to me, I had mentors, I had people who just showed me every single day that they care."
Thomas brought her challenges to RYSE in middle school, turning them into art and a commitment to her community. She now serves on the staff, giving back what she’s received. "Going back to being that little girl, in that time, in that moment, if I could somehow manifest her into this space," said Thomas. "She would feel so important, she would feel so heard that these famous people, who have all this money, all this access, who just had a game, took the time to be here."
These professional athletes took in the beats the students have created, sat down to paint with them, and made the partnership between RYSE and the Niners official, with a custom t-shirt. For Al-Shaair, it’s hard not to see himself in these young people. Growing up, he experienced homelessness and poverty, overcoming challenge after challenge before becoming a Niner.
"When it comes to kids and poverty, there’s not a lot of consistency," said Al-Shaair. "I went to a different school every year, having a place like this where the kids are leading the way. "They have one place where they can come, and feel safe and consistent, you can’t beat that."
Al-Shaair is on the Players Social Justice Council that helped the organization to receive this year’s grants totaling $500,000. The money helping these groups advance societal change in the Bay Area. "It’s our responsibility to support the community in the ways we feel are necessary," said McCorkle. "Each organization we work with as their own way that they support righting the wrongs in the past that have been done to marginalized communities."
The players signed autographs and took many photos with the young people at RYSE. But, perhaps more important than a souvenir, a message from a role model who plays for your favorite team and knows what you’re going through.
"A lot of times you can’t see better for yourself, you just see the situation you’re in," said Al-Shaair. ""First thing you have do is believe, believe you can be better, make decisions that are going to align with what you want for your life, and for yourself. It gets greater later, but you just need to trust the process."
RYSE and Urban Ed Academy were selected out of a pool of grant applicants along with the five returning organizations: Californians for Safety and Justice, Dream.Org, Operation HOPE, San Jose African American Community Service Agency, and Student Program for Academic & Athletic Transitioning (SPAAT). After issuing an initial $1M in grants to ten Bay Area and California-based social justice organizations in 2020, the 49ers announced the extension of their grant program to commit $5M over 10 years focusing on advancing racial equality in policing, ending mass incarceration, and educational and economic advancement for young Black people.