Author: Lauren Hunsberger | Posted In: Meet | February 2022
How one Bellevue local changed paths and dedicated his life to mentoring local youth.
Jesse Franklin lived a charmed life. He grew up on the Eastside, excelled in football at Sammamish High School and went on to play for Claremont McKenna College, while majoring in psychology and economics. After, he traveled the world, working and teaching English in Vietnam, Czech Republic, and India. Then, he returned home and landed a corporate consulting job.
All signs seemed to point in the right direction for a life of success and satisfaction. But, he felt unsettled. It was a feeling he couldn’t shake or ignore, so he turned to his community to talk about his growing unrest.
“I intentionally reconnected with a few friends I was close with when attending Sammamish High School. These friends, despite attending the same high school, happened to have vastly different life experiences. Their parents, for example, didn’t speak fluent English and didn’t graduate high school. My parents both had graduate degrees and knew exactly how to navigate the system,” Franklin says.
“That day, I was hit hard learning what had transpired over the past four years. I was full of hope and focused on building a future that would bring me endless joy. In contrast, my friends had one focus, to survive. To keep the lights on and food on the table. At the time, this didn’t add up to me. And I became consumed with figuring out why.”
He knew the first step was to change his day job.
“I was searching for a deeper meaning of purpose,” he says. “And it became very clear that I wanted to do my part to close the gap between the young people who have every resource at their fingertips and those who don’t.”
In 2012, he officially founded Rainier Athletes (RA), an organization dedicated to mentoring, coaching, and supporting local “youth who face barriers to access.” Originally, RA reached youth primarily through sports (a space Franklin knows very well), but now it has expanded to include arts, sciences and other extracurricular programs as well.
“Many people don’t assume organizations like this are necessary in Bellevue. The assumption is everyone here has everything they need, when in fact, over half the students at Lake Hills Elementary qualify for lunch subsidies,” Franklin says. “And despite Bellevue School District being ranked at the top nationally, when it comes to the students experiencing poverty, especially those who identify as people of color, the district hasn’t moved the needle. Significant performance gaps persist.”
The RA paradigm is designed around a partnership with the Bellevue School District that enables them to identify youth who fall through the cracks and face significant barriers to the resources the Bellevue community has to offer. Once identified, RA matches them with a mentor to provide long-term mentorship for students from the fourth grade through high school.
“The core of the RA model is the mentor, a volunteer from the community who meets every week with the RA student,” Franklin says.
RA also covers the costs associated with sports and extracurricular activities and partners with other Bellevue organizations to connect families to essential resources for rent assistance, mental health services, and more.
“Mentoring, when done right, has unlimited potential to affect change,” Franklin says.
After a decade of work, RA currently partners with 12 schools in Bellevue and works with more than 300 mentors and teachers. Franklin has experienced first-hand the joy of watching numerous generations of students graduate, go to college, and thrive beyond his and their wildest dreams.
But then the pandemic hit. Franklin knew this would add an extra layer of struggle for many of the families that RA is involved with. He says his immediate response was to double down because students would need connection and support more than ever. And that’s exactly what they did. His group of mentors began zooming with mentees, doing weekly check-ins, and making an extraordinary effort to keep kids motivated.
“Yet again, I saw the immense value of mentoring,” he says. “In a way, the pandemic reinvigorated my passion because I witnessed the transformational power of human connection in a world where students remained isolated from their teachers and peers. Rainier Athletes is heading into 2022 with more wind in their sails than ever before.”
Along with more motivation, Franklin says RA just re-launched their Board of Directors. They went from five voting members to 13, and board members include MOD Pizza co-founder, Ally Svenson, Mayor of Bellevue, Lynne Robinson, Ascend Hospitality Group Owner and CEO, Elaina Morris, Kyle Boyd from Seattle Kraken and more. (See sidebar for complete list.)
“Rainier Athletes continues to be committed to connecting and fueling opportunity for young people wherever they happen to be—in the classroom, on the field and throughout their community,” Franklin says.
In addition, this spring RA is launching the inaugural Play it Forward event series, featuring event honorees, Tod Leiweke, CEO of the Seattle Kraken, and Ascend Hospitality Group (represented by CEO, Elaina Morris).
“Over the past two years, the need has skyrocketed. Unfortunately, due to lack of capacity, RA had to turn away many families seeking support. The event will raise the critical funds necessary to significantly expand RA’s reach. The first event took place May 14 at Ascend in Bellevue.
For more information or to get involved, please visit www.rainierathletes.org.
WHO’S WHO OF RA
Tom Bailey, Broadview Wealth
Kyle Boyd, Seattle Kraken
Elaina Morris, Ascend Hospitality Group
Midori Hobbs, Seattle Seahawks
Betsy Johnson, Groopit
Heija Nunn, Windermere Real Estate
Ally Svenson, MOD Pizza
Michelle Clark, Eastside Youth Coalition
Heather Edlund, Bellevue School District
Dr. Julie McCleery, University of Washington
Sam Willing, Neoleukin Therapeutics
Jane Aras, Bellevue School Board
Jesse Franklin, Rainier Athletes
Mayor Lynne Robinson, City of Bellevue
By the Numbers
80% of RA students, when first selected in 5th grade, had never participated in an organized after-school sport. After five years in RA, 85% of all RA youth continue being involved in organized teams into high school.