Wilkinsburg’s Alive and Kicking Team strives for health, fun, intergenerational relationships — not to mention sponsorships and a better practice field.

By Jourdan Hicks
From left, Kia Foster, of Penn Hills, Jasmine “Happy Feet” Thomas, of East Liberty, team manager Yvette Harrison, of Wilkinsburg, Sandra “Ma Duke” Douglass, of the Hill District, and coach Haywood “Cheddar Melt” El, of Wilkinsburg, come together at the end of practice for their Wilkinsburg Alive and Kicking Kickball Team on April 26 at Whitney Park in Wilkinsburg. Games start on Sundays in June, and are broadcast on YouTube. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
From left, Kia Foster, of Penn Hills, Jasmine “Happy Feet” Thomas, of East Liberty, team manager Yvette Harrison, of Wilkinsburg, Sandra “Ma Duke” Douglass, of the Hill District, and coach Haywood “Cheddar Melt” El, of Wilkinsburg, come together at the end of practice for their Wilkinsburg Alive and Kicking Kickball Team on April 26 at Whitney Park in Wilkinsburg. Games start on Sundays in June, and are broadcast on YouTube. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The Steel City Kickers Kickball League is not just any sports league. It’s a community of women who come together to bond, have fun and promote healthy habits. Founded as a social impact organization, the league aims to equip the next generation of Pittsburgh-area women through movement, cooperative economics and the enjoyment of a little competitive sport.

From June to August for the last six years, up to 14 teams with 19 players each compete in weekly games, playoffs, championships and skills competitions. It’s a space where women of all ages can safely come together, with emphasis on sisterhood and health. 

Yvette Harrison, a lifelong resident of Wilkinsburg and the team manager for the Wilkinsburg Alive and Kicking Kickball Team, stands for a portrait after practice on April 26, at Whitney Park in Wilkinsburg. Harrison started coming to games in 2017 after learning about the Steel City Kickers league through a colleague at Allegheny County Children Youth and Family Services. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

One team, in particular, has made significant contributions to both the league and its community: the Wilkinsburg Alive and Kicking Kickball Team. 

Yvette Harrison, a lifelong resident of Wilkinsburg, is the team manager. She first learned about the organization through a colleague at Allegheny County Children Youth and Family Services and became involved in 2017 when Esha Sheard, the league’s first president, encouraged her and her colleagues to join.

“So I started going to the games in like 2017 or so. Me always thinking about ways to make money, I was like, they need snacks here, you know? So I got my daughter, she was still in high school, and we got nachos and candy and pop. And we start selling stuff to them,” Harrison said. “We would go up here and do that. So like for two years, I guess I did that, you know, so hot dogs on the grill and stuff like that. And so then I started saying, I think I need to get a team together.”

Yvette explained how she recruited her girlfriends and sisters to join the kickball team even though none of them were in shape for it. They decided to embrace their age by naming the team “Old Out.” Despite having a few younger players, they were the oldest team in the league and took pride in it.

After coaching the team for two years, Yvette noticed a gender imbalance among the coaches, with most of them being men. In response, she took on a leadership role herself and became the team’s lead. She continued in the role for two seasons before stepping down in 2019. The upcoming 2023 season will mark her fourth active season as a member of the Wilkinsburg Alive and Kicking Kickball Team.

“I had got all my girlfriends that I grew up with, my sisters, ‘Come on, we’re going to do this team.’ And so, you know, we had this great vision, but like, none of us are in shape for this, right? And we were all old. We got stuff for being the oldest team and having the fastest runner. You know, we had a couple of younger people, but literally, like we were the oldest team in the league and it was nice.”

Yvette and her fellow teammates were motivated by the league’s mission to promote healthy habits, foster intergenerational relationships and make a positive impact in the community. They were particularly drawn to the league’s emphasis on older women mentoring and bonding with younger women.

Although Yvette has not played kickball since her first year on the team, she takes pride in the fact that, as team manager, she has helped create a family-centered experience where mothers and daughters can participate in the activity together.

“I go to practice sometimes, I go walk around with them, I’m like just the manager now, keeping them together. I’m very excited because like while we’re all from Wilkinsburg, now it’s our children, my daughter played for two years, she’s in college. All of our children who are from Wilkinsburg and it’s so nice because they always knew each other already and they’re, like, really gelling together. They’re the younger version of Wilkinsburg, I’m Ms. Vette to them, you know, it’s really nice. It’s coming together.” 

Yvette’s responsibilities as team manager include handling registration, uniforms, team-league insurance, financial aid and field observation. 

“Our mission is just, like, to provide positive sportsmanship, you know, and to encourage and embrace our youth.”

From left, Jasmine “Happy Feet” Thomas, of East Liberty, Qualynn “Legaxi” Griffin, of the Hill District, and Sandra “Ma Duke” Douglass, of the Hill District, get ready for a kick during their Wilkinsburg Alive and Kicking Kickball Team practice at Whitney Park in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Listen to Yvette Harrison of the Wilkinsburg Alive and Kicking Kickball Team explain how community pride and competitive sport is driving positive change in Wilkinsburg and inspiring others to reinvest in their neighborhood.

Despite some younger players initially requesting a team name change, Yvette said she also took on the duty of conveying the history and significance of the original name to them. As a result, they have embraced the name with pride and are honored to continue the legacy of the team’s founding members.

Like I said, it’s our children now, two of them played as their mothers played. Our name, you know, they, they asked to change the name. I was feeling some type of way. And then as I gave them the history of the name, they said, no, we’ll keep it, you know. Because Alive and Kicking, we were older, but we just thought we were still it.”

The team practices four days a week at Whitney Field, which is located near Kelly Elementary School, and competes on Sundays at Arsenal Field in Lawrenceville. Yvette or “Ms. Vette” as she is affectionately known, takes great pleasure in witnessing the intergenerational connections that are formed among the players.

I was excited because, like, you know, children don’t get out and do activity things anymore. Like, move around. It felt good to see the excitement in my daughter and her friends’ eyes was nice.”

Yvette also takes great pleasure in witnessing the positive changes that her team members experience as they work toward becoming healthier versions of themselves. Seeing her teammates make progress and become more confident and self-assured brings her a great sense of joy and fulfillment.

Well, we don’t know. We don’t have any health initiatives. But it’s amazing to watch people who are sometimes, when they first just get in shape, just, you know, look forward to the activity, you know. I remember when we first started, it was just like everybody’s like, ‘Oh, are you losing weight?’”

Yvette said she is beginning to see a similar kind of transformation happening in her community, due to the redevelopment and renewed interest in the area. This is happening in parallel with the positive changes that are taking place within the individuals on the team as they become involved with the kickball team and its mission of promoting healthy habits and positive relationships.

I believe that it’s starting to thrive again. I just want to make sure that as it begins to thrive, that the residents that has been there forever don’t get pushed to the wayside,” Yvette said. “It’s in jeopardy a little bit, but I see it getting better.” 

Yvette also serves the youth of her community through her work at Deliverance Baptist Church’s “Next Generation” ministry, advocating for funding and planning activities for young people. With three degrees in social work, Yvette uses her knowledge to be a positive force for esteem and change. 

As the presence of the team grows, Yvette said she hopes to encourage the community and its residents to reinvest in the neighborhood, while her passion for providing resources and support comes from a sense of responsibility for decisions she made in her youth that impacted her hometown.

“I wasn’t the best. I wreaked havoc in Wilkinsburg for a very long time running around in a four- or five-block radius with my head chopped off. And so not being the best person to my kids or anybody else. Hooked on drugs. And so in that time, you know, I feel like I got so much to give back. So much, too, you know what I mean? So yeah, I’m just really passionate about the Wilkinsburg area, period. And so I have a lot to give back.”

Regarding the future of the team, sponsorships are a top priority. While there is a strong bond between the league and the Alive and Kicking Team, there have been competitive moments that have fueled the team’s ambitions for the upcoming season.

Other teams has tried to take them (Alive and Kicking players) away because they’re so good. Like, ‘Why you wanna stay on that team? You only win about three games.’ And so they’re like, ‘No, we’re Alive and Kicking.’”

From left, Sandra “Ma Duke” Douglass, of the Hill District, Brandy “Bizzy B” Bailey, coach Haywood “Cheddar Melt” El, and team manager Yvette Harrison, all three of Wilkinsburg, laugh as Bailey winds up to kick during practice for their Wilkinsburg Alive and Kicking Kickball Team at Whitney Park in Wilkinsburg. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Despite not having won a championship yet, Yvette said she believes that this season’s team, sporting teal and silver, is the strongest one yet. The team’s current coach, Haywood El, shares the same sentiment and has set his goals for the season.

“To make the playoffs,” said El. “I will. I would say championship, but we’re not there yet. Faster. I got a lot of lively legs that can kick further in the outfield. We just got to work on the small intricacies in regards to working in runs as opposed to us like driving the ball to other players and getting out.”

Yvette characterizes him as a “health fanatic.”

“The coach, he’s just like he’s, I want to say a fanatic, but he’s into health and, he works them hard, he drills them and he’s, you know, asking everybody what they eat, bases it off dehydration and all that. You know, he’s, ‘I need you to bring cut up oranges to the game.’” 

Jokingly, El characterized Yvette asvery opinionated” and a “vocal leader.” 

Not only is he the team’s coach, he’s her supervisor at work.

“We have our days,” Yvette said. “We do come back from work, and I’m like, ‘Oh, we’re still holding that, you know?’” 

Yvette’s vision for the team goes beyond just kickball. She hopes that the team can serve as an inspiration for the entire Wilkinsburg community to take ownership of their physical environment. This includes playgrounds, sidewalks and any other space in the borough that has the potential to bring people together. By working together to improve their community, Yvette said she believes they can build a stronger and more connected neighborhood.

Everybody lives in Wilkinsburg and it’s a pet peeve of mine. You know, people will drive down the street and just throw a whole McDonald’s bag out the [window], you know. Adults. 

And it drives me crazy. So, as we’re getting noticed I’m trying to get them to invest in and into Wilkinsburg. One Saturday, we’re going to clean up the area and Wilkinsburg. I just want them to see us. I want to become visible to the Wilkinsburg community.” 

Yvette attended a recent borough council meeting because her team was using Whitney Field, which was not being maintained properly. She was frustrated because in her mind, the borough was receiving funding for the field but not taking care of it, and Yvette felt that it was their responsibility to take care of the field regardless.

Pamela Macklin, a Wilkinsburg Council member, shared this about the impact of Alive and Kicking team:  “I believe sports is critical for healthy, confident and team building youth and adults. Also promotes family involvement and community pride.”

Wilkinsburg Mayor Dontae Comans said, “It’s amazing to have a sports team think of the borough as a home and I look forward to seeing them have events in the community promoting teamwork and health. My family looks forward to attending their games.”

Yvette’s passion for kickball and her community shows how sports can bring people together and inspire positive change. With her sights set on securing sponsorships that align with her values, the future looks bright for Yvette and her Wilkinsburg Steel City Kickers.

Under the guidance of former team President Mylia Jackson, Steel City Kickers league has secured a partnership with Roxamore Sports Network, allowing fans to tune in and watch games live every Sunday. She said, “the addition of the broadcast coverage is a testament to the league’s growth and success in recent years.”

Looking toward the future, the league has plans to continue expanding its reach, with hopes to attract more young girls to the sport and provide an engaging recreational activity outside of more traditional competitive sports. By offering a safe and inclusive space, the Steel City Kickers league aims to inspire the next generation of women and positively impact the community.

Janelle McLain, of Verona, the new Steel City Kickers league president, stands for a portrait on April 26 at Whitney Park in Wilkinsburg, where the Wilkinsburg Alive and Kicking Kickball Team practices. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

New league President Janelle McLain shared that the kickers’ expansion also looks like competing against other leagues. “We hope that both our crowds bring new spectators and supporters for both leagues. We are working on establishing our own field for each summer, and looking to find new ways to support local organizations that promote the health and well-being of women in Western Pennsylvania.“

As the 2023 season approaches, it is clear that the Steel City Kickers league and Wilkinsburg Alive and Kicking Team are set for continued growth and success. With a few open slots on their roster, the team is actively seeking new players to join them. Interested individuals can reach out to coach Haywood El for more information. Those looking to learn more about the other teams in the Steel City Kickers league can reach out to President Janelle McLain for further details. 

As Yvette and her team continue to work toward building a healthier and more connected community through kickball and beyond, the future looks bright for Wilkinsburg and its residents.

Jourdan Hicks is PublicSource’s senior community correspondent. She can be reached at Jourdan@publicsource.org.

This story is part of PublicSource’s Points of Pride coverage chronicling and mapping the strengths of diverse communities.

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Jourdan is a senior community correspondent at PublicSource. Previously, Jourdan was engaged as a community-based educator in the Hazelwood section of the city. A lifelong Pittsburgh resident, she’s...