Gets Real: Rise Above uses sport to empower Native American children

Rise Above is an organization that uses sport to educate and empower Native American children across Western Washington who may not otherwise have access.

The CEO, Jaci McCormack, said the mission of Rise Above is a testament to her own journey as a young athlete growing up on the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho.

“I didn’t have anybody to emulate what it is that I wanted to do,” McCormack said. “What we do is use sport as a modality to educate and empower kids -- just using sport to get kids through the door,”

McCormack said she fell in love with basketball at a young age.

“I just needed a ball and a hoop,” she said. “It really became my sacred space and when I was overwhelmed and needing some extra support, or when I needed to clear my mind, it was always basketball.”

McCormack was recruited out of high school to play Division I basketball at Illinois State where she and her team brought home a conference championship.

“It was like a moment of clarity for me as an 18-year-old kid that I wanted to give back and I wanted to show kids that they can do it, too,” she said.

McCormack said during that time, she noticed that there was a lack of representation of Native Americans and people of color playing college sports.

“Absolutely,” she said. “One thing that is like a wild statistic is that when I went to Illinois State, there were actually two other Natives on my team, and to have three Native Americans who had never met each other before, other than a recruiting trip, that was unheard of.”

She graduated from Illinois State in 2005, and ten years later, Rise Above was founded. Since its inception, the organization has helped thousands of young athletes.

“The representation is getting better, and I think there’s creating more opportunities for kids -- that’s one of the biproducts of Rise Above is really giving kids the tools and opportunities to really reach and fulfill those dreams,” she said.

McCormack said a key piece of what makes Rise Above so special is having athletes who share similar backgrounds come on as mentors. Emoni Bush is one of the ambassadors for the organization. She is a junior at UW, where she plays volleyball.

“It’s fulfilled me a in way I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Bush said.

Similar to McCormack, Bush also grew up on tribal lands.

“It wakes me up in the morning, it keeps me going at hard practices, hard games, hard times in my life just knowing that there’s a group of kids looking up to me and they want to do what I do one day, it’s a big motivator and big inspiration for me,” Bush said.

It’s a full circle moment for McCormack, who has hopes of expanding the organization to a national level, and one day even opening a Rise Above Academy.

“It doesn’t really matter who’s in the gym, whether it’s five kids or 300 kids or three hundred kids. If we have the ability to really impact at least one child’s life every time that we have a clinic, every time that we have an assembly program, that’s what it’s about and that’s what, that’s all worth it,” McCormack said.

If you’d like to donate, volunteer or know a child who could benefit from what Rise Above offers, click here: https://nativeyouthriseabove.org/