Coach Brandon Matich knew he had a retention problem when he started as East High’s head coach. His previous Park City team had nineteen first-string, all-state players and five of them came from within East boundaries. High schools around the valley had been cherry picking East’s best players for years and the result was a dismal winning record peppered with low team morale.

Matich’s solution—he began listening. “The very first day of school Ms. VandenAkker, or Ms. V., she threw me into a group circle with a bunch of kids who [had just experienced] mobbing. I walked out of there thinking, ‘I wonder if Park City will take me back.’ It was intense.” This interaction with kids who he says, “looked like they were 16 year old boys at school but were acting like 40 year old men at home” changed the direction and tone of his recruiting.

The new coach proceeded to visit the families of over 50 potential players, most of them Polynesian, over the next few months. Not only would he go to talk football, but take homework, paperwork, food and anything else he thought a family might need. He listened to a community reeling from gang-related violence (in 2012 Salt Lake City had the third-highest Crips gang population in the U.S) and found himself advocating for players who unjustly fell on the wrong side of the law.

“I learned fast that it wasn’t about recruiting, but it was about connecting and caring,” Matich told the East Bench Business Association while speaking at their Winter Breakfast. “Whether you’re trying to build a football team, or lead your employees, the most important thing is to listen—to their stories, their perspective—and care about what’s happening in their lives.”

“I see a lot of ingenuine recruiters come through, and these kids, they can feel it. But when they know they have your ear and your loyalty, they’ll do anything for you. And the things they’ll do are spectacular.”

Kris Barta has also seen East High students and parents accomplish spectacular things in this same spirit of listening and caring. Barta is the director of East High Student and Family Support and this quarter’s Outstanding Neighbor Award recipient. The center provides food, clothing, medical care, supplies, and shower and laundry facilities for the 64% of East High students and their families living below the poverty line. It also extends services to low-wage custodial and kitchen staff struggling to improve their quality of life.

Barta and her fellow PTA members had felt the need to do something more than, in her words, “give teachers cookies” for many years. A food pantry was started under the direction of PTA presidents Patti Christensen and Jane Barker. Eventually a free (gently-used) clothing store and laundry/washroom facilities were added.

“Everything I do, everything,“ Barta credits, “is dependent on the generosity of our community.” Students and parents stock the pantry and help with distribution. Donations, in-kind and cash, come from students, alumni, local businesses and charitable organizations. What started as a community-outreach effort has morphed into a school renaissance with service-based learning as a core principle for East High School students.

Asked how this is making a difference in the student population, VP Whitney Watchman says, “It makes hard conversations, much easier: rather than asking a student if they need food, or trying to tell them they need to shower before coming to school, I just send them down to Kris, and she takes care of them. They walk away clean, fed, and feeling good about themselves.”

“Most importantly,” Barta asserts, “is once these student’s basic needs are met, they are ready to learn; energy they would otherwise spend worrying about their family or their next meal or clean clothes and a shower goes into learning new skills.”

Barta and her team are already looking to the future. They plan to rework their current space to decrease long lines and make it more efficient and accessible. An art installation is slated to make the shower and laundry facilities more welcoming. With support from generous business partners, they hope to facilitate scholarship offerings, internships and summer jobs for those experiencing short-term setbacks.

“Some parents have a hard time sending their children to East,” PTA president Lexie Dubell conjects, “They feel like their children would be better served at a more traditional high school. But I look at the students at East and I know they will be better educated, better people because they are learning [something beyond academics]—they are learning to take care of each other.”

As Coach Matich aptly put it, “We are building a collective culture that’s bigger than us.”

Many thanks to Brandon Matich, Kris Barta and the folks at East High school for inspiring us to listen and care about the people in our sphere of influence.

Melinda Meservy, owner of Thyme and Place, generously provided each attendee with a charming air plant. Her botanical boutique offers gorgeous plants and free-trade wares and offers a delightful lineup of potting and wreath-making classes. We highly recommend you check out her new digs at 362 E and 900 S.

And lastly, but never the least, a shout out to the gracious Randall Curtis for allowing us to use the beautiful Harbor Seafood and Steak for our meetings.

Our next Spring EBBA breakfast is April 16th at 8:30 am. Contact [email protected] to attend.

Contact Kris Barta at [email protected] to donate to East High Student and Family Support. You can read about their mission and find a list of their needs on their webpage. They are currently in need of a “dairy fairy”—someone who could provide in-kind milk and dairy donations on a regular basis.