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This Football Team Has a Booster Club of Ex-Convicts

Flickr/Rodriguez (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
A group of former convicts pooled together more than $3,500 to help buy equipment for the team at the Gainesville State School, a juvenile correctional center.

From Texas Standard:

A small school in North Texas will receive a donation of more than $3,500 for its football team. In a world of million-dollar sports deals, it may not sound like much. But for the Gainesville State Tornadoes – it's huge.

The school is a juvenile detention center and its donors are ex-convicts. It all started when a lawyer and activist Omid Ghaffari posted an ESPN article in a Reddit forum for ex-convicts about a high school football fans.

"The Grapevine Faith fans actually lined up for the Gainesville State players, cheering them on," he says. "And it was a nice story kind of about a community coming together for a group of boys who usually don't have any fans or anyone cheering them on."

Ghaffari moderates the forum along with Kort Kirby and Chris Cash, the group's founder.

"Life can be daunting, especially if you're a convicted felon," Cash says. "If you don't have a good support system in place and if you don't believe in yourself, it's so easy to get trapped up and go right back in."

Cash would know – he spent time in juvenile detention on and off throughout his teens, and served six years in a penitentiary as an adult. "So, I decided to start my own Subreddit," Cash says. "It's a pretty good community where people can come together and offer advice."

So after Ghaffari posted the story about the Gainesville State Tornadoes – who last season went 0 and 10 – the members of the sub-Reddit started thinking, Is there anything we can do to help?

"Chris called the school, talked to the coach and a few staff members there to find out what they needed and the biggest thing was turf shoes," Ghaffari says. "So we put together a little fundraiser with the initial goal of $300 to buy a couple of pairs of shoes and it really just took off from there."

Within an hour, the moderators met their goal. Other large donations started rolling in. An article in the Dallas Observer provided more attention – and more money.

"It means a lot to me, you know, to go outside the gates and actually go back into the world and still see that they got people out there who support us even though we're locked up," Elliott says. Because they're in the juvenile system, inmates are only allowed to go by their first name.

Elliott, who's an inmate at Gainesville State School, plays football for the Tornadoes. There are no tryouts for the team, but an inmate does have to meet certain qualifications to join and to compete off campus.

"Basically, they look at your behavior and everything and if you're doing good – you know it's open to anyone to play," Elliot says. "As long as you're behaving on campus and you're doing what you're supposed to do."

Henry Thomas is head coach of the Tornadoes.

"Kids are kids, you know, regardless of whether they're in the free world or whether they're incarcerated," Thomas says. "They all deserve the same type of treatment. They all deserve to be treated fairly."

Today, Thomas will receive the donation, in person, from the three online forum moderators: Omid Ghaffari, Kort Kirby and Chris Cash. This'll also be the first time the moderators meet face-to-face.

"A lot of these kids, they might come from broken homes," Cash says. "They might be victims of abuse and gangs. We're hoping that they see that people all over the world, without even knowing them, love them and care about them."

Elliot, who is serving time in Gainesville, it makes a difference far beyond the field.

"This is a motivation to me to do good while I'm here, you know, playing sports," he says. "So I can just use the motivation and stuff that I've gotten here when I return back to the free world."

Lauren Silverman is the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She is also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.
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