Founder and CEO Nita Simpson is clearing a path to sports for low-income kids
By Rick Hurd Bay Area News Group
Nita Simpson’s first interaction with the tall teenager who later would become one of her best basketball players did not come on a court. It came in church, and the discussion had nothing to do with the fact that Jordan Taylor was bigger than almost every kid his age.
“She noticed that he was very quiet, very much an introvert, and that he struggled to connect with others,” Jordan’s mother, Tia Taylor, said. “It wasn’t about sports or what he could do for her team. It was about his life, what could she do for him? And I just think that says so much.”
That was four years ago. Today, Jordan Taylor is an emerging basketball talent and a standout senior at De Anza High in Richmond. More important, his mom said, he has discarded some of the shell that kept others away.
Mother and son both point to the influence of Battle Tested Kids, and Simpson, its founder and CEO. The Oakland-based non-profit organization provides sports training and mentoring and serves low-income youth. Simpson is also the organization’s basketball coach.
Through the East Bay Times’ annual Share the Spirit campaign, Battle Tested Kids is hoping to raise $25,000 to help Simpson subsidize participant tuition. The funding also will go toward sponsoring participants in camps and paying rental fees for gym time and for equipment, Simpson said. The funds would serve approximately 150 people.
Raising money to make the operation run is an obstacle. Simpson’s genius, her players said, is her ability to roll right by that barrier and others while keeping an eye on the bigger prize.
“Her passion to help us out and find a way to make things work when obstacles come up is what makes Nita so special and this organization so special,” said 17-year-old Nadia Barron, a senior multi-sport athlete at AIMS College Prep High School in Oakland. “She doesn’t do it for the glory. She doesn’t do it for money. She doesn’t do it to win a game. She does it to help us. It’s pretty special.
Spend any time at all around Battle Tested Kids and it becomes clear that Barron’s sentiment is shared by many.
“When COVID happened, I didn’t want to go out of the house. I kind of really didn’t want to do anything. It was hard,” Jordan Taylor said. “But Nita would come and get me and we’d go and we’d practice or whatever, and it just really helped me a lot. It helped me take my mind off of what was going on with COVID and everything and got me living again.”
For her part, Simpson seems to find nothing extraordinary at all about what she does. She said she simply saw a need for youth between 8 and 18 years old who weren’t playing sports in Oakland and tried to do something about it. She said she uses sports and the other physical activities at Battle-Tested Kids to teach self-discipline, healthy living habits, teamwork and personal growth.
“I grew up in Oakland. I grew up in the ‘hood,” Simpson said. “A lot of kids were directionless. I always saw my parents work extremely hard. So I look at the work ethic and what it can do for you, even in extremely difficult circumstances. I always had the picture of hard work and being the best you can be, and that’s what I want for these kids.”
She began coaching kids in 2016. In 2020, just before the pandemic hit, she convinced herself to “take the leap” and create the nonprofit. She said she wants, above all else, to teach the youth she coaches to live in a similarly fearless way.
The kids said at this stage in their lives, the message Simpson provides hits them more powerfully than what their own parents might say — especially when they are full of fear and can’t necessarily see what the best of themselves will be.
“It’s really taught me to believe in myself,” said Aaliyah Taylor, 16, Jordan’s younger sister and a volleyball and basketball player at De Anza. “It got me better in basketball. It got me in better shape physically, better shape mentally. It’s taught me that you just keep moving forward each day and keep your eye on what you’re trying to get done.”
It’s the process that Simpson wants her players to concern themselves with, not the outcome.
“I know at the beginning of (being at) Battle Tested, I wasn’t comfortable standing up for myself all the time,” said Ojiugo Egeonu , a sophomore hoops player at Ames College Prep. “Like, one of my friends had been asking me to give answers on a homework assignment. But because of … the work I was doing and what I was learning, I just knew that wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair to me. So instead, I told my friend I’d help her, but I wasn’t just gonna let her look at my stuff.”
Her brother, Ubadinaobi Egeonu, 17, and a senior basketball player, at Ames College Prep, said the influence of Simpson and her organization spills into real life in more ways than he can count.
“My game is better in all aspects in the past year. My shot, my dribbling, all that,” he said. “But where I think I’ve grown the most is that I think I’m better because I’ve learned that being a leader is about what you do with your actions, and not just what you say you’re going to do. In the beginning, I didn’t get that. Also, I have a lot of responsibilities, and I didn’t really know how to organize my time or priorities, so I ignored them.
“Coach Nita really gets hands-on and makes sure you know how to make time to get everything done. So now I have balance. That’s made me better in school, better in life, better everywhere.”
It’s words such as those that feed Simpson, she said, not the numbers on the scoreboard or in the win-loss columns. As such, the greatest challenge she lays out for her players is to push their lessons forward to their peers and the ones that follow.
“You meet kids, you kind of get to know them, you get to know their ways,” she said. “Once you become invested, you want to see them get over the threshold and taste that success. When you give them direction and purpose, it can change where they’re going in life.”
When told that those kids would remember her forever for what she’s doing, Simpson said that devotion is reflected back at them.
“I’ll remember them forever, too,” she said. “They are pretty special kids. I can’t wait to see what they do in life as they get older.”
How to Help
Donations will help Battle Tested Kids subsidize tuition for low-income participants. It will also go toward sponsoring participants in camps and paying rental fees for gym time and for equipment. The funds would serve approximately 150 youth.
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