Ella Avanza's free softball clinic

Ella Avanza Introduces Girls to Sports

Thanks to Southview Garden Center for their support.

On a hot, sunny afternoon a half dozen girls show up at the West St. Paul Sports Complex for a free softball clinic. There’s a pile of free gear and eager coaches telling the kids to be good teammates and listen.

“We need to hustle. Do you know what hustle means?” asks Jenny Carpenter, a West St. Paul resident and head coach of the Warrior softball team.

Carpenter asks what they like best and many of the girls say hitting. So they move into batting practice. The girls work on their stance, learn how to choke up on the bat, and then take mighty swings. Throughout the day Carpenter and her assistants put the girls through drills and play fun games, all emphasizing the basics of softball.

This is the beginning of Ella Avanza. It’s a new effort to increase Latina participation in sports by creating accessible opportunities. They start with kids as young as kindergarten with a goal of getting them involved at a younger age.

“Ella Avanza translates to She Advances,” said Itzel Cervantes Cardoso, who started the program. “Latina female athletes have a lot of barriers, but we overcome them and we advance to greater and better things. We accomplish things that we never thought we could.”

Itzel Cervantes Cardoso
Recent graduate Itzel Cervantes Cardoso

The Need for Ella Avanza

Cervantes Cardoso, who just graduated from Henry Sibley High School and lives in West St. Paul, didn’t start playing sports until eighth grade. She played basketball, softball, and tennis, and stuck with softball and tennis through all four years of high school.

“I got involved in sports very late compared to the other white girls in all of the teams,” said Cervantes Cardoso. “Most of them had been playing since they were about 6 years old and some even younger. Compared to them I was far behind in skills, experience, and comprehension of how the sport is played.”

Cervantes Cardoso noticed she wasn’t the only student facing these issues. She also saw a common thread among her fellow students who were behind in sports.

“We were all first generation sons and daughters in the U.S. from immigrant parents who came from Central and South American countries,” she said. That immigrant experience presented a number of challenges. Their parents were often focused on making ends meet and didn’t experience the value of sports themselves. It just wasn’t a priority. Even if it was, they didn’t have the disposable income to pay for it or know how to navigate the systems to get involved.

“They can’t afford to spend their money on private tennis lessons for their eight year old daughter,” said Cervantes Cardoso. “They need that money to pay the rent and other bills.”

“Seeing myself be the only Mexican on my teams or one of the few players of color really angered and saddened me, because I know the potential that we have, but sadly we don’t all have that support system around us to help guide us,” said Cervantes Cardoso.

So she did something about it. This past year, Cervantes Cardoso was selected as the student representative to the ISD 197 school board. From there, she was able to form the connections necessary to start Ella Avanza.

Itzel Cervantes Cardoso

The Softball Clinic

Cervantes Cardoso recruited Carpenter who brought in assistant coaches Marisa Fuglestad and Brooke Alsides. Together the four of them have spent months brainstorming and planning this weeklong softball clinic. Several players on the softball team also volunteered to help.

“It’s been a joy watching them learn how to use a glove, throw a ball, swing a bat, and run around the bases,” said Fuglestad. “For some of these kids it is their first time doing any of these things!”

This first Ella Avanza event welcomed all girls in kindergarten through eighth grade. Attendance has ranged from just a few to a dozen, but no matter how many show up, the two hour daily clinic has flown by as they work through skills.

“It’s incredible getting to watch how they first started off and how much they have improved in the course of a few days,” said Cervantes Cardoso.

“It fills my heart and soul to see the excitement these kids have for learning new things,” said Fuglestad. “Even when they don’t get it the first time, they try again, and that is inspiring.”

Free Equipment

The Warrior Softball program hosted a gear drive at the last regular season home game in May. They collected dozens of gloves, bats, shoes, helmets, and more.

“Without the gear donations we wouldn’t have been able to teach the little girls how to play,” Cervantes Cardoso said. “We also sent every girl home with a glove and a bat so they can keep practicing on their own.”

“Sports equipment, for any sport, can be expensive,” said Fuglestad. “I’m so glad the community came together to provide equipment for these kids so we can remove that barrier.”

Advancing Youth Sports

While this is Ella Avanza’s first event, it won’t be their last. They hope to expand to other sports. Even though Cervantes Cardoso graduated, she’ll head to St. Thomas in the fall and will still be in the area, so she plans to continue leading Ella Avanza forward.

“It makes me so happy for them, because I know the great impact this will have on them if they continue to play a sport,” said Cervantes Cardoso.

Visit Ella Avanza to learn more about their efforts.

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