While bored at a business internship last summer, Cameron Hajialiakbar browsed the internet for a job involving soccer, one of his main passions.
He ended up finding Coaching Corps, an Oakland-based, nonprofit organization that places students as sports coaches in school-run and private programs serving low-income youth.
Hajialiakbar, a third-year communication studies student, credits his coaches as important role models in his own experience playing soccer. He said he was drawn to the program and signed up for a position with Coaching Corps’ affiliate program, AmeriCorps.
Within a short time, he was contacted by Coaching Corps to start a student chapter of the organization at UCLA. The youth that benefit from the program do not otherwise have access to parks or other facilities in their communities, said Sheilagh Polk, director of communications for Coaching Corps.
Since founding the UCLA chapter in fall 2011, Hajialiakbar has recruited 15 coaches to the organization and has partnered with nonprofit and school-run sports programs for children in Los Angeles.
On March 22, Hajialiakbar was honored along with nine other people at the White House as a “Champion of Change” for his efforts to encourage children to become more physically active.
“It was really inspirational for me to be acknowledged as part of a community so committed to getting kids active,” he said.
His recognition marked the second time in a month that a UCLA organization has been honored at the White House. Earlier in March, the UCLA student group Swipes for the Homeless was also recognized for its work.
The youngest person to be honored at the ceremony, Hajialiakbar’s fellow award recipients also included CEO and two heads of municipal parks and recreation departments.
At the heart of Hajialiakbar’s efforts is the mentorship he received from coaches in his youth, he said.
Hajialiakbar especially remembers the coach of his club soccer team in high school. Before a game against the top-ranked team in the league, his coach told each player to look to the teammate next to him, imagine that he is a future wife or child, and ask himself “Did I do enough?”
This moment taught Hajialiakbar to judge his actions by their effects on others and motivated him to serve his community, he said. He began coaching soccer clinics while in high school.
Michael La Rosa, a third-year political science and psychology student who serves as the vice president of Coaching Corps at UCLA, said Hajialiakbar flew frequently to Oakland for meetings with the organization’s leadership.
Hajialiakbar also makes time to coach one of the programs himself, spending three afternoons a week teaching soccer to a group of 150 students at Palms Middle School, La Rosa said.
Coaches are tasked not only with guiding their trainees in physical activities, but also with creating an environment conducive to building teamwork, discipline and self-esteem.
To do this, Hajialiakbar always consults the participants about the activities they want to do, he said. Hajialiakbar also requires that all volunteers in the program spend two to six hours a week coaching for the entire quarter, to ensure students develop a bond with those they coach.
Some of the most heartening lessons Hajialiakbar has learned from the organization have come from the participants themselves, he said.
He recalls a participant saying that Hajialiakbar was rich because he went to college and drove a car. The experience made him realize that he took for granted many opportunities that were out of reach for the children he worked with, he said.
Many of the children in the programs run by Coaching Corps have parents who work all day, and the coaches often provide a support system to the students, Hajialiakbar said. He often talks about UCLA during coaching sessions so that participants in the program will see college as a goal to aspire to, he said.
For the coming quarter, Hajialiakbar and La Rosa both said the primary goal of Coaching Corps at UCLA is to recruit more coaches. In the long run, it’s to get the Coaching Corps name out there, he said.