Oct. 2, 2012
By Tim Miguel
When you grow up in a part of town like the socioeconomically poor district of Visitacion Valley in San Francisco, the goal is to not end up like many of the residents - arrested or murdered. Fortunately for senior defensive back Tyré Ellison and junior fullback Dasarte Yarnway - two childhood residents of Visitacion Valley - they are two of the few who have left and made better lives for themselves.
When other people his age were living in more affluent neighborhoods and concerned with getting good grades, making their high school sports team and just enjoying their youth, both Ellison and Yarnway were dealing with much more adult issues. Ellison often wondered if he'd live to see the age of 18 after enduring the tragic murder of a cousin who wasn't even 20 years old yet. Yarnway assumed the patriarchal duties of his household at the age of 12 when his father passed away from cancer. Not even a teenager yet and Yarnway became the man of the house - which consisted of five sisters in addition to his mother.
But Ellison and Yarnway are survivors. It's what got them to Berkeley, on the Cal football team and out of the struggling community of Visitacion Valley.
"Growing up in that particular environment, you see a lot of violence," Ellison said. "Sometimes you don't have the right positive influences around you. I was always told, `If you go to college, you will be successful and you'll get a job.' I always had that state of mind."
Both Yarnway and Ellison agreed that it's not the people who are bad in the neighborhoods, but rather good people becoming products of the bad environment. When you don't have the money or the resources to take care of your family, something has to give. They both emphasized they saw good people forced to make poor life decisions in order to take care of their families.
They both have seen dreams shattered when promising young and talented athletes in the community happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and have lost their lives. But it was actually sports that helped save Ellison. It gave him a reason to keep striving for more, and eventually reach his destination at Cal.
"Seeing so much violence all the time, I wanted something different for myself," Ellison said. "I try to preach to the youth that there's more than what you just see right here. There's a whole world out there. You have to go out of your comfort zone and experience it. When I was younger, I thought I would end up as just another statistic, going to jail or ending up dead. Fortunately, I have a strong family base. My parents always stayed on me, and I had a lot of support from my family."
When their time at Cal is over, they both intend to return to their childhood communities and try to make it a better place. Not just back home, but Yarnway said he also wants to return to the Cal football program and be a guest speaker for the team, giving them advice like the mantra that he lives by - stay hungry, stay humble, stay focused.
When asked how many people from his neighborhood are now in college like him, Yarnway said he could count the number of people with one hand. As a result, he has decided to take action to try to improve this. He and his brother have started a nonprofit group called the Uplift League that features a headlining seminar entitled Get To Saturday. The goal of the Uplift League is to provide mentors that encourage and nurture, and help underprivileged youth identify the possibilities of the world and help them march on to their dreams.
"If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach him how to fish, he eats for a lifetime," Yarnway said. "My father taught me a lot in the short 12 years that I had with him. It took other men - uncles, brothers, coaches - to really teach me how to fish and how to go out and do things for myself. That's the goal of this league that we're trying to incorporate. For people to have that extra aid for anybody that can assist so they can learn what their goals are and who they want to be."
Before they can change their community, they need to finish their own education. The paths Ellison and Yarnway took for their education were different before they ultimately ended up at Cal.
Ellison graduated from Burton High School, which is in Visitacion Valley. When he hopped on the Bay Bridge and moved to Berkeley, he said he definitely noticed a big change in his surroundings. The main difference that Ellison said he noticed was everything was in close vicinity in Berkeley. In Visitacion Valley, he was really in his own little world that didn't have much. It required a lot of difficult travel to do the same things most people take for granted every day.
"It's pretty different," Ellison said. "Where I live, it's the projects. It's pretty much isolated. Kids have to make up games to play. In Berkeley, we have a lot of things that are accessible. You have the movies on Shattuck and the bowling alley. In order for us to go to the movies [in Visitacion Valley], we had to go all the way downtown. You had to either catch the bus or get a ride. The bowling alley is downtown. Everything was far out."
Yarnway was able to attend a high school out of the area - Sacred Heart Cathedral in the City's Western Addition - thanks to a close connection that his father had with one of the pastors. The experience was beneficially eye-opening for Yarnway.
"In the transition of switching schools, I really got in touch with spirituality and that helped me a lot," Yarnway said. "It wasn't the resources, but just having a sense of it. Especially during the time when everything was going on with my dad, that really carried me a long way. I commend Tyré for going to high school in the same part of town where he grew up and then getting out. Sacred Heart was on the other side of town, and I got to experience things that I probably would not have if I stayed in Visitacion Valley."
While it's a large undertaking for just two people to make such an impact on an impoverished area like Visitacion Valley all on their own, there is no doubt that Yarnway and Ellison will make a difference.