SPORTING CHANCE: Why Keith Sinor wants to transform athletics in Oklahoma City Public Schools and how he plans to do it
The Oklahoman/NewsOK.com – by Jenni Carlson Published: October 2, 2016
The ringing telephone jolted awake Keith Sinor.
Even though it was 2 a.m., he immediately recognized the voice on the line. It was one of his basketball players from Capitol Hill, and she was at a pay phone. Her dad had gotten drunk and beat her.
“Coach,” she said, “I don’t know what to do.”
Sinor didn’t hesitate.
“I’ll be right there.”
During nearly a decade of coaching in the Oklahoma City Public Schools, Sinor dealt with lots of players who had problems. Problems of poverty and violence and brokenness. Problems no child should ever have to deal with.
Sinor, an Oklahoma City schools alum himself, wanted to help.
But how? How could he handle every problem? How could he meet every need? Especially when he knew that for every kid who called in the middle of the night, there were so many more who never picked up the phone.
“If you’re truly vested into kids and you’re looking at the 20-year perspective — where is this kid going to be in 20 years? — then you’re trying to build them up,” Sinor, 46, said. “But if I have 15, 20, 25 kids and each one of those kids has huge issues?”
He shook his head.
“It just becomes overbearing. It wears on you.”
It wore on Sinor so much that he left the city in 2002. He took his wife and kids, bolted for the suburbs and started down a path that seemed destined for a superintendent’s job.
But then in 2011, the thing that drove him out of Oklahoma City lured him back.
And now, Sinor is launching a program he believes can help remedy what he could not fix alone. It is an audacious plan to make fans where there are few, to bring care and love into a school district that needs it in abundance, to build relationships where they are needed most.
“This is not in his job description,” said Tim McLaughlin, who has become one of Sinor’s biggest cheerleaders and allies since starting Fields & Futures to overhaul playing surfaces all across the district. “He’s in it for the right reasons.”
And he’s in it deeper than ever.
Keith Sinor was doing volunteer work with a prison ministry team five years ago when he realized that he had to go back to the Oklahoma City schools.
He vowed he’d never return when he left nearly a decade earlier. He put Oklahoma City in his rearview mirror when he took a job as the girls basketball coach at Edmond North, then decided to get into school administration after four years. He quickly rose through the ranks in the Deer Creek school district to become the high school principal.
But then came the day volunteering behind bars that changed his life. The first three inmates who talked with Sinor told him that they had attended Oklahoma City schools.
What’s more, all three had been athletes.
“OK, God, I’m listening,” Sinor remembers thinking that day. “I’m not sure I am the one for this gig, but I’m going to go.”
Sinor was hired by Oklahoma City Public Schools as the district athletic director overseeing sports all across the district. Every sport. Every level. Every school.
Sadly, as Sinor started talking to coaches and administrators, he realized the problems faced by students in the district had only grown during the years he had been in the suburbs. More kids faced barriers to success, and the barriers were bigger than ever before.
Sinor wasn’t deterred.
He began talking about plans to start a mentoring program. He wanted to align people in the community with kids in the schools.
“How do we get that to happen for all of our athletes in Oklahoma City schools?” he asked.
There were some successes — one church on the south side of the city, for example, got involved with a school for a year or so — but nothing ever caught fire.
Meanwhile, other aspects of Sinor’s vision for athletics in the district were blazing away. With the backing of the Wes Welker Foundation, improvements and upgrades in equipment were happening all over the district. Cleats for Kids was providing shoes and gear to kids whose families couldn’t provide them, and Fields & Futures was starting to rebuild fields at every high school and middle school in the district, an effort that would eventually enable the Police Athletic League and Oklahoma City Parks and Rec to get involved and expand youth sports leagues.
McLaughlin was among the early adopters of Sinor’s vision. Even though McLaughlin didn’t live in the district or send his kids to Oklahoma City schools, he recognized that sports could make for better students which would ultimately make for better parents, better employees, better bosses, better citizens.
Yes, overhauling nearly four dozen fields would take millions of dollars and several years. But McLaughlin drew strength from Sinor’s quiet confidence.
“He just keeps plowing through,” McLaughlin said. “Head down and plowing through.
“There’s no waver in him.”
Still, Sinor could’ve given up on starting a mentoring program. It struggled to gain traction even as so many other things were going so well. But those other programs actually encouraged him to keep trying — Sinor knew lots of people cared enough about kids in Oklahoma City to open their checkbooks.
Maybe their hearts could be persuaded, too.
“We need people in our community to come back into our schools,” Sinor said. “We don’t really need for people to buy presents; we need them to be present.”
Keith Sinor got involved with Salt and Light Leadership Training, a local group that helps Christian leaders help others. Ideas are nurtured. Plans are cultivated.
A little over a year ago, Sinor started meeting for breakfast every other week with Wes Lane, the former Oklahoma County district attorney who was one of SALLT’s founders and is now its president. They didn’t have an agenda, but Lane had been impressed with Sinor and drawn to his passion.
Over cups of coffee and scrambled eggs, Sinor told Lane about his desire to have mentors for every athlete.
“He’s not content to just be a dreamer,” Lane said. “He’s also a doer.”
The more Sinor and Lane talked, the more they realized there might be a blueprint at Northwest Classen High School.
Matt Ross, the boys’ soccer coach there, endured some of the same struggles that Sinor did as a coach. Ross wanted to know and help and care deeply for each of his players, but as his program grew to include 75 kids, having a personal relationship with every one became nearly impossible.
“It broke my heart,” Ross said.
But then Ross met Tobin Jackson, pastor at Trinity Baptist Church, which is a couple miles east of the school on NW 23rd Street. The church decided to adopt Ross and his soccer team. The congregations provided pregame meals and cheering sections at first, but as the church members met the soccer players, relationships formed. It wasn’t planned. It was organic.
Because of the people from Trinity, a couple players decided they wanted to go to college to prepare for work in the ministry. Several others accepted offers to play college soccer. Ross suspects some of those players might not have opted for college if not for their mentors from Trinity.
“If these people are believing in me,” the players thought, “then I can believe in myself and I can go achieve these things.”
This next season, OKC Community Church is going to partner with Trinity, two smaller churches banding together to have even more impact on the boys soccer team. The churches have already asked Ross if they can provide a meal the night before games so that church members have more time with soccer players. The churches will still provide food on the day of the game, probably sack lunches or sandwiches, but having a sit-down meal before the game was too restrictive.
Time was always short, and the church members want more.
So do the soccer players.
“They’re starting to develop a sense of pride about the program that it’s not just us,” Ross said. “It’s our community rallying around us.”
Sinor and Lane decided to try to follow the model established by Northwest Classen soccer and Trinity Church.
Lane looped some folks into his discussions with Sinor, including representatives from The Spero Project. The non-profit helps churches in Oklahoma City engage and connect with the community around them, and it created an organizational structure as well as a website for Sinor’s vision.
Birthed a name, too — Rally 4 Schools.
Rally, for short.
Since the seeds had already been planted at Northwest Classen, it was decided to incubate and grow Rally there. Coaches from every team were asked to provide their three biggest needs. Could be meals. Could be tutoring. Could be coming to games and cheering. No need was too big or small. Then those needs were put on the website, Rally4Schools.com, where people can sign up to help. Could be churches. Could be businesses. Could be anyone with a heart to help.
“You’ve got to get people in there first,” Sinor said. “They’ve got to have an opportunity to meet the kids … and see the need.”
And realize getting involved isn’t scary or impossible. There are just teams who need fans, kids who need to know that someone cares.
Keith Sinor understands the scope of the task at hand. Dozens of schools. Thousands of kids. Millions of problems.
“It’s pretty big,” he acknowledged.
But in the same breath, he said, “It’s doable. It’s doable for sure.”
He wants Rally in every school, and if he had his druthers, the program would be already. That’s because he knows the dire needs of so many kids, and yet, Sinor understands that the program has to start somewhere. It needs to have its growing pains. It needs to become a well-oiled machine. Then, it can be expanded.
The problems didn’t happen overnight.
Neither will the solutions.
Sinor isn’t deterred.
“Will all the needs be met?” he said. “I’m not naïve enough to believe we’ll hit every one of them, but if we can hit the vast majority of them … I think it’s going to be huge. It’s going to make a huge difference.”
Providing a mentor to every child in Oklahoma City’s middle schools and high schools is his goal.
Nay, it’s bigger than that as a man of faith.
“This is his mission, and he wants to complete it,” said McLaughlin, the Fields & Futures founder. “He looks for the obstacles, doesn’t get intimidated by them but just says, ‘How are we going to get around them? How are we going to get over them?’”
Thursday night, Rally will formally launch with Pack the Stands at Northwest Classen’s football game against Guthrie. Keith Sinor has no idea how many people will come — only a hundred or so fans usually show for games — but he hopes and prays the event is the start of something big, something that could be a game-changer.
He quotes the social reformer Frederick Douglass: “It’s easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men.”
Sinor steeled his gaze recently as he sat behind his desk inside Taft Stadium. Only a few feet from his office, people will enter the gates for Pack the Stands on Thursday.
“If we want to get better, we’ve got to be committed to the children that are in our care,” he said. “You can run off if you want, but you still have a responsibility to the kids in our community.”
Keith Sinor knows from experience. He couldn’t do it alone, but now if his plan takes off, he won’t have to.
No one will.
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Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125 or [email protected]. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.