YELL Youth Leader Profile: James Naknakin

Anyone who wants to know how MoreSports changes lives needs only to meet 19-year old James Naknakin. James has grown up with MoreSports. Beginning with the program as a young soccer player, he has been a coach, a YELL youth leader, a mentor, and is now a part-time Assistant Hub Coordinator at the Ray-Cam Community Centre. It has been an inspiring journey.

James was first profiled on the MoreSports website when he was 15. He spoke then of the challenges facing Downtown Eastside kids, saying that before MoreSports there was no system that helped him and his friends take out their energies in physical activities. He credited playing sports and then becoming a coach with helping him and many others stay out of trouble. He talked about how he loved coaching and how proud he was to give back to his community.

A lot has changed for James since then – but not his enthusiasm for MoreSports. He has graduated from high school and is now charting his future course. It’s obvious that his strong commitment to getting local kids active has only increased over the years. As he says, he’s now an adult version of where he was at 15 but the fun level in MoreSports hasn’t changed for him since he was a kid. 

His passion and positive attitude are definitely contagious. YELL Coordinator Kris Hildebrand observes that James is “phenomenal at getting kids out, keeping their interest, helping them grow, mentoring them.” James takes his responsibilities seriously, but allows that he’s proud of how many kids he is able to attract to the Ray-Cam gym. He says it’s all about keeping them active, keeping them focused, and ensuring you have stable programs and a stable schedule. What the kids get out of it is ability. “Even a little bit is an amazing thing to watch. Improvement is the key. Once you see improvement, you know you’re doing the right job.” He adds that he sees himself as a big brother to those kids, giving them an opportunity to be themselves and have fun.

He credits the free participation in activities provided by MoreSports with bringing positive opportunities to both kids and parents. Parents often drop in to sessions to watch and sometimes to play with their kids. James is well aware of the bonds that children and parents can develop through sports. He continues to credit the drive and support of his own parents and older brothers with giving him the motivation to succeed as a person and an athlete. “They are the best thing that happened to me and I want to be the best thing that happened to them.” He in turn is now mentoring his younger brother, as well as an increasing number of other local youth. His reward? He says it’s seeing the smiles on the faces of the kids, and their parents. 

In 2010, his commitment and skills brought him another reward – the opportunity lead a team of local youth in carrying the Olympic torch. One of the proudest moments in his life was standing on the stage, taking the flame, and restarting the route in Vancouver. He says he can’t even really describe the feeling, just that it was phenomenal. “It made me feel like part of the Olympics, like an athlete.” He also got to attend a lot of Olympic events. He loved every moment of the experience. 

James continues to be passionate about sports. He has loved football for years, although he plays less now than he used to. He plays basketball and floor hockey. He runs a soccer team at Ray-Cam. He works out regularly and values the camaraderie and competition he gets from playing team sports with his friends, who he notes are pretty hard-working, athletic guys. Inspired by the 2010 Olympic athletes, he says it would be an honour if he was ever able to represent Canada. He says his sport would probably be soccer. However he spent a lot of time at the Richmond Oval in 2010 and became a big fan of speed skating. There’s a gleam in his eye when he says that might be his next sport.  

Although his next steps aren’t entirely clear, he is aiming to get into recreation at Langara in the fall. He wants a good job working with kids. He is the first to say that what started with MoreSports is becoming his life. He regards the staff at Ray-Cam as his second family. He is also realistic about the challenges life has to offer. “At the end of the day, you’re you. You have to push forward and change what needs to be changed.” He still holds the dream of perhaps becoming a professional athlete but is adamant that whatever he does, he will still be working with kids, helping them grow into good adults. 

He sees his role now as beginning to give back, making other people happy the way they have made him happy. “For all the people who have entrusted me with all the stuff that I do – thanks! Cause without the continued support from MoreSports and Ray-Cam, I wouldn’t have got to where I’m at. And to all the kids who are going to try to do what I do and hopefully succeed – don’t quit! Because at the end of the day, there’s always a bright light and you’ve gotta work hard to find it.”