This Birmingham group points children to careers in sports: ‘Hope and purpose’

By Alaina Bookman

Taliyah Lacy-Mahdi and her mother Kaamilya Mahdi both agree ZeroZero has helped their family with athletic training, counseling, tutoring and financial aid.Alaina Bookman

Kaamilya Mahdi, a mother of three in Birmingham, said she has seen her children make strides physically, academically and mentally since joining ZeroZero.

The ZeroZero Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 2020, aims to help area children not just gain access to athletics and training, but also understand how to apply a passion for sports to future jobs.

Through ZeroZero, Taliyah Lacy-Mahdi receives athletic training, tutoring, counseling and financial support for her extracurriculars.

“I love the fact that they’re excited about something and it’s something positive and it’s something that they’re actually going to gain something from,” Mahdi said.

Mahdi said having three children, Javontay Dalis, 8, who plays soccer, Cervontay Dalis, 14, who plays baseball, and Taliyah Lacy-Mahdi, a 16-year-old weightlifter and musical theater performer, who are all interested in sports was sometimes hard to afford before ZeroZero.

The foundation has helped pay for registration fees, uniforms, training programs, tournaments and performances.

“It has helped out tremendously, because she’s not my only child and all of it can get expensive. And they actually help with a lot of different fees. And that just helps out financially. It’s truly amazing,” Mahdi said. “Me not having to worry about the fees and them not being able to be active in what they love because we can’t afford it, tends to not be an issue anymore.”

How it works

“We’re using sports as a means to give children a sense of hope and purpose,” Caleb Schmidt, the founder and executive director of ZeroZero, said. “Sports is this mechanism that we can use to engage with kids, and build relationships, earn the trust of their families, and then help open their eyes to all of the opportunities, career wise, that exist in sports.”

The ZeroZero program is split into three phases. Phase one, for children ages 6 to 13, helps the program coordinators establish relationships with the children and their families, build an interest in sports and introduce the children to possible careers.

Schmidt said he hopes the program will give children the tools to achieve a fulfilling career, either on or off the field.

ZeroZero also hosts Rally Camp, a free summer program, open to all phases.

Children in phase one have the opportunity to go on in-state field trips to see professional sports games and get an introduction to the business side of sports.

ZeroZero has worked with local teams like the Birmingham Barons, Birmingham Squadron, Birmingham Bulls and the University of Alabama at Birmingham football and basketball teams.

“We work with these organizations to provide our kids with an experience to witness everything that goes on behind the scenes that make the gears turn on the business side, outside of sports and just getting on the field. They get to meet the people that have a career in sports,” Kalil Stroud, the ZeroZero phase one program coordinator, said.

Phase two, for ages 13-19, includes tutoring, counseling, athletic training and out-of-state field trip opportunities to speak with people who work behind the scenes in the sports industry.

“By the time they really sit down and think about what they want to do based off those curated experiences, we will have the chance to connect them with internships, possible jobs through the relationships they’ve built through phase two,” Emondre Johnson, the ZeroZero phase two coordinator, said

Lacy Mahdi will be the first student working with ZeroZero to enter phase three.

The program also incentivizes quarterly check-ins with families by offering breakfast and a $150 check.

Families who attend all four check-ins in a year and whose children consistently participate in their tutoring and counseling sessions will receive $1,000 toward a higher education scholarship fund.

“We want to put our kids on a path to graduate from high school. And if they see their gifts, talents and abilities require additional school, then we want to be in a position to provide the financial resources to make that happen,” Schmidt said.

Program coordinators hope the foundation will help to level the playing field for the children who participate by giving them the training, academic and networking opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have.

“We’re trying to get to the root of the problem,” Stroud said.

“Kalil and myself, like a lot of these kids, we both come from underprivileged communities where there weren’t a lot of opportunities that were bought our way…But with every opportunity that we can give them through the program, we can ensure that their kids are becoming something that is opening their eyes and mind to something that it’s not of the streets,” Johnson said.

The ZeroZero Foundation currently supports more than 100 children in their pursuit of a career in sports. Coordinators said more partnerships, donors and volunteers may help them offer more opportunities

“We’re not the Boys and Girls Club. We’re not the YMCA. We’re just an under the radar foundation. So many people have no idea what we’re actually doing. I think just more exposure leads to more people that want to get involved, whether that be through volunteering, mentoring, donating, I think that continues to be a barrier to our growth,” Schmidt said.

ZeroZero’s impact on children and their families

Besides athletic and career development, program coordinators said their students have made strides academically and mentally.

“It’s changed me a lot, like my attitude. Like when I go in there, I always have a smile on my face and I’m always interacting with everybody there. It’s not like I’m in this tight space. I can actually be myself,” Lacy-Mahdi said. “ZeroZero has done a lot for us, and I appreciate that.”

Mahdi said the weekly counseling and tutoring sessions have made a difference in her children’s lives and that her children are always excited to go to ZeroZero.

“I’m glad that they have someone that they can open up to,” Mahdi said. “As a parent, I have seen them grow academically, I’ve seen their grades rise, especially Taliyah with math. She’s always struggled with math, but now it seems like it’s coming very easy for her.”