Maria Sonnenberg for FLORIDA TODAY
Fred Howell believes in trying. “It is better to be a ‘has been’ than a ‘never was,’ ” said Howell, coach to the Brevard County Starlings, the volleyball club for girls from low-income families.
Since 1996, Howell, who grew up in public housing, has volunteered his time to help hundreds of girls excel in not just in volleyball, but also in life.
“Here is someone that not only teaches volleyball, but helps develop the girls in the needed life skills,” said Bob Makowski, who with his wife four years ago left Polk County for Merritt Island to help their daughter, a single working mother, as she struggled to raise twin teen daughters.
“We first learned about the Starling program when my daughter could not afford the high club fees that were required at other clubs.”
For Makowski’s granddaughter, Abigail Shaffer, the Starlings and Howell have helped shape her outlook on life. “I believe his teachings have been instrumental in helping develop the volleyball skills Abby now has, and equally as important as in helping her grow as a young lady,” Makowski added.
“I have known Fred for the last four years that my granddaughter has played on his teams. His dedication to the development and needs of the girls goes way beyond the volleyball court. He teaches discipline, structure, life skills and embraces the need for academy achievement. He represents the father figure to many of these young girls.”
Other folks share Makowski’s assessment of Howell, for the coach was named Junior National Outstanding Program Director Award in May by the Junior Assembly of USA Volleyball, the governing organization for volleyball in the United States. USAV programs are the pipelines for the Olympics.
“It was given to me, but it’s really a group effort,” Howell said.
Part of a national volleyball network started in inner-city San Diego in 1996, the Brevard County Starlings is the only club of its kind in Florida. The national organization, launched to help girls from disadvantaged backgrounds, encompasses about 3,000 youngsters, from 6-year-olds to high school seniors, in clubs scattered across more than 50 cities and Native American reservations in the United States.
Just a few years back, Howell had about 30 girls in the program, but this past year 150 showed up for tryouts.
“He has been able to get many qualified coaches to also volunteer their time for this worthy project,” Makowski said Coaching girls’ volleyball teams was the furthest thing from Howell’s mind when in 1995, while working for Brevard County Parks and Recreation, he underwent knee surgery. As part of his personal rehab program, Howell would head to Joe Lee Smith Park, where he was the center supervisor, to play a little volleyball, a sport he had picked at age 21 as camp staffer for Boy Scout camp.
Little girls would often watch him play and sometimes would ask to join.
“In this community, there was not much for little black girls to do at the time,” Howell said “A lot of my kids didn’t have money. They came from single parent homes or sometimes from no-parent homes and were being raised by grandparents. Parents who have money have different desires for their kids and can afford to send them for training. We were training for free.”
From a ragtag group of little kids from Cocoa with too much time on their hands and not much adult supervision, Howell has shaped a club of nine teams with a reputation that now draws players from across the county, even though practices remain solidly grounded in the Cocoa area.
“When we first started, I didn’t understand the ramifications,” Howell said.
“I just wanted the girls to learn to play volleyball.”
He teaches volleyball indeed, but in the process, he also changes lives. J’ena Baker, for example, has been playing with the Starlings since she was 8. The 17-year-old, who in August will start her senior year at Rockledge High, is humble, unassuming and quiet off the court, but she is a force to be reckoned with in volleyball.
“Scouts were looking at her when she was in the ninth grade,” Howell said.
J’ena, who has a chance at the Olympics, will have her pick of college scholarships when she graduates in 2016, thanks in large part to her participation with the Starlings.
“The question is where she wants to go to school,” Howell said.
Although the club’s original demographics were primarily African-American, the Brevard County Starlings now include a sizable number of Hispanic and white players. There were no costs to participate when Howell first started coaching, and the practices are still free, but uniforms, insurance costs and tournament participation have necessitated some fees, although these remain but a fraction of most junior club costs.
No girl is ever turned away because of inability to pay. When parents cannot afford the fees, Howell kicks into turbo mode with fundraising efforts.
“We’re always working on car washes,” he said.
“I’ve called all my buddies and begged for money, and each year we’ve been able to survive the season.”
Howell’s free time is consumed by the Starlings, whether it is participating in the practices four times a week, traveling to tournaments with the girls or helping to raise needed funds.
Although the club has grown and evolved, Howell remains true to his original goal.
“I do it for the girls in my community,” he said.
Coach Tina Diaz of the Palmdale Starlings couldn’t have put it better. “Whew! What a weekend! I think Im still going through an adrenaline rush right now from all the hoopla and excitement.” We couldn’t agree more. From the Opening Ceremony — where Diaz’ gals stole the show with in their tutus and headbands — to the weekend of high level play and champions being crowned, the 19th edition of the Starlings National Championship was a stunning success.
Of particular note, our friends from south of the border emerged as a new powerhouse, winning the 18s, 16s, and 12s divisions. Under the tutelage of Ruben Cheu, who has coached most of the girls over the years, their remarkable ball control paid off in a big way. Congrats to them and to San Gabriel — one of our clubs always in the running — who won the 14s division. Newcomers who surprised everyone with their improved play were Indianapolis, Mobile, Brevard County and Cudahy. Nice going! It signals great things for their programs in the future.
This past weekend, the Baltimore Starlings attended the Nashville Starlings Volleyball Combine along with the Nashville, Louisville and Toledo Starlings which was hosted by Fisk University. It was a great turn out! It was a weekend combine which exposed the girls to college life by staying the weekend in the dorms and working with a collegiate coach. This was great exposure!
Shout out to Lakeshia and Sara Grams for the invite. If it goes unsaid, I couldn’t appreciate you more for your kind gestures and patience with working with the Starlings program. Thanks for the continuation to grow the game and giving our girls the chance to fly!
Here is the latest list of Starlings players that played on collegiate teams in 2014. We congratulate them on their achievement and hope that this inspires others to follow in their footsteps.