December edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. Join US Lacrosse today to start your subscription.

Aaron Locke sits in a car headed toward his past. He excitedly recites a sentence he learned recently in Japanese class at the University of Delaware.

"> Transformed: How Lacrosse Changed Aaron Locke's Life | USA Lacrosse Magazine


Transformed: How Lacrosse Changed Aaron Locke's Life

 This article appears in the December edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. Join US Lacrosse today to start your subscription.

Aaron Locke sits in a car headed toward his past. He excitedly recites a sentence he learned recently in Japanese class at the University of Delaware.

“My name is Aaron,” he says. “I’m a student at Delaware University. I’m 19. I’m in my second year and my major is International Relations. It’s nice to meet you.”

He speaks of his aspirations to study in Japan. They have lacrosse there, you know. He’d love to get involved.

The car turns off of Centre Road in Wilmington and pulls into the parking lot at Ferris School for Boys. Locke, dressed in a gray Rowan University hoodie and athletic shorts, walks inside the Level 5 correctional facility where he spent nearly a full year of his life.

Less than three years ago, he was adjudicated in family court and sentenced to time here. Today, he returns for a clinic in partnership with Delaware men’s lacrosse and coach Ben DeLuca. He’s eager to see his old coaches, Kalyn McDonough and Lee Powers.

McDonough, a former two-year captain for the Delaware women’s lacrosse team, is now its community relations coordinator. Powers, the boys’ lacrosse coach at Wilmington Friends School and president of US Lacrosse’s Delaware chapter, started lacrosse at Ferris in December 2016 at the urging of his wife, Katharine, a clinical psychologist at the school.

Powers worked to procure an equipment grant through the US Lacrosse First Stick Program, while also making Ferris an annual stop for the Sankofa Clinic Series that launched at around the same time.

For each clinic, US Lacrosse provides two hours of instruction, plus a complimentary lacrosse stick, t-shirt and membership. Perhaps more importantly, the series connects kids from predominantly minority communities with some of the sport’s most visible coaches and players of color. Chazz Woodson, who plays professionally for the Premier Lacrosse League’s Redwoods, created the Sankofa Lacrosse Foundation in 2013 and joined forces with US Lacrosse three years later.

Locke’s love for lacrosse hatched in May 2017, at the first of three Sankofa clinics US Lacrosse has conducted at Ferris.

“Without the experience of being with Ferris, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today,” Locke says. “[Lacrosse] gave me something to do while I was at Ferris. It gave me an outlet. It was a way to motivate me to create goals. I was a part of something I’d never been a part of before. It gave me the opportunity to prosper in a way that I hadn’t before.”

“It gave me the opportunity to prosper in a way that I hadn't before.”

The lacrosse program at Ferris — a secure-care, ACA-accredited treatment facility for court-committed males age 13-18 — is the only of its kind in the country. Most of the students come from impoverished backgrounds, have been involved in drugs and gangs and are identified as serious or chronic repeat offenders that pose a risk to themselves or others.

Ferris has football and basketball teams, as well as an intramural weightlifting program. Lacrosse made perfect sense for the spring, when restraints typically rise in absence of a pro-social outdoor activity.

“We hope that some of our youth fall in love with the game,” Dr. Katharine Powers says, “and find their way onto lacrosse teams when they return to the community, instead of back onto the streets.”

Raised in downtown Dover, Locke learned early that he’d have to work to support his family. At age 14, he took on a part-time job after his mother had lost hers. Soon, he sought alternative ways to make money.

In 2016, Locke was caught stealing a dirt bike and charged with theft of a motor vehicle. Then, he was charged with possession of a handgun with intent to sell — something Locke admitted he did to take the cover for a friend who had pending charges.

“It was being with the wrong crowd,” he says. “It was just a toxic environment to grow up in.”

The handgun charge landed Locke in family court, where he was adjudicated to the Ferris School to serve a one-year sentence starting in January 2017. He was transported in a van along with other students to Ferris to begin his sentence.

It’s not where Locke envisioned himself, and he wasn’t comfortable. He’d shy away from fellow students. He wasn’t focused on his grades. His aspirations were put on hold.

“I was shell-shocked in a way,” he says. “Yeah, I got in trouble, but before that I was going to school. I was in AP classes. At Ferris, there were people from so many backgrounds. A lot of them had already given up in a way.”

It took a few months for Locke to find his place at Ferris. He needed an outlet to express himself.

And so two months into his time at Ferris, Locke joined the lacrosse team. He quickly latched onto a sport he’d never played before, and it gave him a jolt of confidence.

“He’s not your typical kid that ends up at Ferris,” Lee Powers says. “He had a lot of different life skills and experiences. There were intrinsic things for him, like personal drive and self-awareness, that not a lot of kids there have.”

That drive manifested itself in lacrosse. Locke was a leader for the Ferris team, which traveled to compete against local high schools.

“You go out to practice and you try to get everyone focused, and Aaron would already be shooting on the cage,” Lee Powers says. “That’s how he ended up developing the fastest shot of any kid we had.”

One season with Ferris lacrosse had Locke thinking about his future beyond its walls. It only reinforced his vision when US Lacrosse brought the Sankofa Clinic Series there in May 2017.

“They talked about how lacrosse impacted them,” Locke said. “They grew up in the way that we did. Seeing how much they did to get where they are, it made me think, ‘Hey, maybe I can do that, too.’”

Locke graduated from high school was accepted to Rowan University while at Ferris. After six weeks in a re-entry program, he was excited to get out of Delaware for the first time in his life — to leave the environment that led him to Ferris in the first place.

“There were no more locked doors,” he says.

But during his first semester in college, Locke ran out of money. He dropped out and returned home to live with his mother and her boyfriend. Uncomfortable in that environment, he later resorted to sleeping at friends’ houses and, at times, in his car.

Lee Powers helped to raise funds so Locke could make rent. He also connected Locke with the governor of Delaware, John Carney, who played lacrosse and whose children were coached by Powers.

With their help, Locke landed at Delaware Tech and played club lacrosse last spring. His ultimate goal was to attend the University of Delaware. With a GPA above 3.0 and a letter of recommendation from Carney, he got in. He started classes this fall.

“This is a kid who is busting his hump, doing everything the right way,” Lee Powers says. “He has a family that loves him but just doesn’t have the ability to help him in all the ways a young person needs to be helped. Get this kid a dorm room and a meal plan, and he’s going to be fine. He’ll hit the books.”

Locke has a locker in the Delaware men’s lacrosse locker room and an open invitation to be a team manager. No one would know where he came from and the challenges he faced growing up. Lacrosse transformed him.

“Aaron is an incredibly impressive young man and it’s his personal qualities that have helped him navigate these challenges,” McDonough says. “The relationships with the coaches and other lacrosse players have helped him. That’s all you can ask for in this line of work — that you can see a young man succeed in the way that Aaron has.”

Locke exits Ferris through the double doors to the parking lot — the same way he did just two years ago. Powers offers to drive Locke back to campus and he accepts. Storm water splashes under the car’s tires as they turn onto Centre Road toward a future full of promise.

Better Together

Shortly after US Lacrosse partnered with the Sankofa Lacrosse Foundation to conduct free clinics nationwide in predominantly minority communities, the Ferris School for Boys started a lacrosse program

For Sankofa co-founder Chazz Woodson, it was the perfect confluence.

“The Sankofa Lacrosse Foundation originated out of the need to create not only a more diverse atmosphere in lacrosse in general, but also to connect people of color in the sport generationally and geographically, and to use that to promote diversity and excellence in lacrosse,” Woodson said. “It’s important to use this game to teach those other skills, to teach discipline and what it means to be a person of character — what it means to be a citizen, really, and somebody that’s interested in the well-being of others.”

The Ferris School is a Level 5 correctional facility for court-committed males age 13-18 in Wilmington. Through its Delaware chapter, US Lacrosse introduced the sport at Ferris in December 2016 and has since supported the team with a First Stick Program grant and three Sankofa clinics — a total investment of more than $15,000.

“Most of our kids, they have issues with other kids, as far as gangs and neighborhoods,” Ferris athletic director Craig Walker said. “But the team concept comes through.”

“These guys get a sense of accomplishment,” assistant coach Walter Armstrong said. “Most of them have failed many, many times, which led them to incarceration. But to take on the task of lacrosse, go through the frustrations of learning it, but to learn with them and we all grow together, that’s the beauty of it.”

“Guys that would never, ever be seen together — eating together, talking, laughing — they’re coming together,” assistant coach Emmanuel Carlis said. “We’re bridging a gap with lacrosse.”

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