“A Night to Honor Jackie Mendez” was held at a private Rancho Santa Fe home on Nov. 30, celebrating Mendez’s 25 years as the volleyball coach at R. Roger Rowe School, as well as her partnership with the nonprofit Starlings Volleyball Clubs as a new board member.
The celebratory event was hosted by Todd Buchner, a member of the Starlings Volleyball Clubs board whose daughter was fortunate to be one of Mendez’s many players at Rowe over the years.
“It was such a fun night, celebrating a really great person and a great nonprofit,” Buchner said.
There were nearly 70 people in attendance, poring over old team albums and yearbooks, reminiscing special memories on and off the court.
“When I walked in, I was absolutely floored,” Mendez said. “I had players and parents there from maybe 24 years ago, people that I had no idea were coming. I was very emotional.”
Just recently, Mendez was honored to be tapped to be a member of the board at Starlings Volleyball Clubs, which provides equal opportunity for girls from diverse, lower socioeconomic backgrounds to train and compete at USA Volleyball’s Junior Olympic level club teams. More than just volleyball, it seeks to encourage teamwork, health, positive life skills and academic achievement.
While junior club volleyball dues around the nation can often be exclusionary, Starlings club dues are minimized and some girls are provided work opportunities in exchange for monthly dues. Additionally, Starlings clubs raise part of their budget through fundraising. The goal is that no girl is excluded due to financial hardship or level of play, “We don’t turn anyone away,” said Buchner, a board member since 2015.
Buchner said there is a unique opportunity to jumpstart Starlings not too differently than how Pro Kids helped the First Tee organization take off back in 1994—First Tee challenges underserved youth to excel in life by promoting character development, life skills, education and the game of golf.
“In looking at their roadmap, they were able to leverage the efforts of a small group to create a national organization,” Buchner said, noting that while there are Starlings clubs across the country, they are all kind of left to their own devices as far as fundraising. His goal is to create an institutional mindset for fundraising on a national level and allocate the funds to clubs and communities with the greatest needs.
Buchner said the Nov. 30 event was a great way to introduce people to a non-profit they had perhaps not been aware of as well as an opportunity to hear Mendez’s story. She was a 16-year-old sophomore playing volleyball on a club team when she had a life-altering experience.
“We were a really good team and we were punky teenage girls who thought we were too cool. We had some attitude and we were really clique-y,” Mendez said.
There was one girl on their team, Janet, who the teen girls thought was a little nerdier than the rest of them. She was the coach’s pet and the girls often made fun of her and excluded her. Mendez said the girl would always ask to pepper (warm up) with her and Mendez would always say she already had a partner. She can admit now: she and her teammates were bullies.
One day Janet didn’t show up to practice and the girls were making jokes about her like they always did. Mendez will never forget how her coach came to practice ashen-faced to tell them they needed to go to the hospital to see Janet, who had been in a terrible accident. While trying to jump over a fence to get into a home she was locked out of, she had been impaled by a stick. She wasn’t able to survive the impact of the impaled object’s removal and she died that night.
The tragedy and how Mendez had treated her teammate weighed heavily on her, especially after Janet’s mother told her at the funeral how much Janet had liked Jackie and playing with her.
“At the funeral I looked down the pew and all my teammates were sobbing,” Mendez said. “We were crying not just because she was dead, we were crying because of the way we treated her and we couldn’t take that back.”
Only 16-years-old, the experience changed everything for her.
“I’ve had to live with that my whole life and it shaped who I am,” said Mendez, now 51.
While attending San Diego State University, Mendez was an All-American volleyball player before spending two years in Europe playing volleyball professionally.
When she returned to San Diego, she met fellow longtime Rowe teacher Stacey Halboth who encouraged her to come coach volleyball at the school. At the time, former Superintendent Lindy Delaney was looking to pass the program on. Delaney liked Mendez’s style, attitude and spirit and asked her to apply for a job at the school. Mendez started as a teacher’s aid, got her credential and masters and has been the computer teacher ever since, helping the program evolve to include programming, engineering and CADD computer-aided design, broadcast news and graphic designing. She also is in charge of the school yearbook.
And for 25 years she has been the volleyball coach for girls in fourth through eighth grade. Fourth and fifth graders play before school and sixth through eighth graders compete in the South Coast Middle School League.Mendez said kids are starting to play club volleyball as young as second grade, and they learn most of their skills and fundamentals at the club level. From her, they get the benefit from her unique life experience. In her 25 years of coaching, the story of Janet is always on her mind and she always uses that story to teach her players how easy it is to be kind, how to be a good teammate and friend, to encourage each other and how to bounce back if they make a mistake. She teaches her older players to be mentors and good role models for the younger ones, through the school’s intramural “mix and match” tournaments.
“Winning comes as a result of how we can function as a team,” Mendez said. “The bonus is the wins. I’m much more concerned with the kind of people these kids become.”
“The best part of the night was Jackie telling her story, it was so powerful,” Buchner said. “That’s what Starlings is all about, using volleyball to teach life lessons and to help girls achieve their dreams.”
To celebrate Mendez’s 25 years, Buchner has coined his fundraising effort “The Mendez Movement,” encouraging people to donate directly to the “Jackie Mendez Coaching Chair Challenge” to help support Starlings coaches, to sponsor a Starling’s player for $250 or a team for $2,500, or to buy a pair of special “Starlings socks”. The pink and black socks are a Starlings fundraiser with Legends Socks Co. and they can purchased for $10 per player or $1,000 for a team. All proceeds go to Starlings and with each purchase, Legends will donate one pair to a Starlings player.
In addition to fundraising help, Buchner said Starlings also needs volunteers for the national tournament held in San Diego. Those interested in getting involved or donating can visit starlings.org.
“Needless to say, my hope is we are able to help all girls regardless of socioeconomic backgrounds play club volleyball,” Buchner said.
Mendez said she has already heard from people who said they have contributed to the cause since her involvement.
“It’s been very surprising and really happened fast,” Mendez said. “I feel so very honored.”