Boston People More People

Rebekah Splaine Salwasser

Building a Village in Boston

By Kelly O'Brien

Rebekah Splaine Salwasser is the liveliest thing in the English High School.

In the atrium, she chats and hugs and bounces among coaches arriving for a district-wide volleyball meeting.

In the wide, concrete hallways, which are nearly empty even though classes let out only half an hour ago, she jokes with her staff members about the forced cheerfulness of the yellow-painted walls.

In her office, she talks about how her passion for soccer led her to a career helping student athletes. “I mean I would be playing right now if I wasn’t seven months pregnant. Seriously.”

In the Boston Scholar Athletes’ Zone, which contains dozens of students working around small tables, she tends to stand at the front of the room with her back to a giant whiteboard, commanding attention even when she is conferring quietly with one of her employees.

The English High School is one outpost of a village built throughout the entire Boston Public School system, and Salwasser is most definitely the mayor.

The Mayor

Salwasser says she doesn’t get to visit the Zones as much as she would like. As executive director of the Boston Scholar Athletes Program, she’s about six levels of management above the “facilitators” that spend their days embedded in the city’s high schools. Her life is more about board meetings and grant proposals than basketball tryouts or algebra homework.

Still, Salwasser helped build the BSA’s in-school learning center system into what it is, and Zones are at the core of her work. “When I get to these spaces, that’s when I get reinvigorated,” she says. “That’s when I think like, ‘I’ve had a crappy day, but I’m here now, and this is what I work for. This is what I help create.’ So this is the inspiration for me.”

“She really does have a good time talking to the kids,” says Natalia Piazzarolo, who works in the Zone located at English High School. “She loves listening to them, listening to what they have to say. How do they feel about the Zone? What can the Zone do for them? What else can we add?”

When Salwasser took over as executive director in 2010, there were three BSA Zones. Now there are 20, serving every public high school in Boston, and one more that opened in Putnam Vocational Technical School in Springfield this fall. The rooms are open throughout the school day and for about three hours afterwards, each staffed by at least one full-time BSA employee.

In the English High School, the Zone is a large room tucked somewhere in the labyrinth behind the cafeteria. Wide wooden platforms rise stadium-style from the whiteboard to the back of the room, where colorful posters and motivational quotes splatter the walls. High schoolers fill the seats; a facilitator huddles with one student over a textbook while a senior facilitator floats around the room. The school’s baseball coach walks from table to table, checking in with some of his players.

Anyone can use the Zones as long as there is space (and there often isn’t). Students come to work with tutors, attend workshops on college applications, talk to counselors about the athletic recruitment process, or just to study.

Five years ago, Boston Scholar Athletes began with a strict focus on the city’s young athletes and ailing sports programs, but now Salwasser says 40 percent of the students BSA helps are not on a roster at all – a major improvement in her eyes.

Piazzarolo, who has been with BSA for two and a half years, says she has watched the growth happen organically. “The kids do the recruitment for us. They’re like, ‘Oh, I get my homework done in the Zone, you should come too.’”

Ligia Noriega-Murphy is the headmaster of the English High School. Before that she worked in the superintendent’s office during the time Salwasser was pushing to expand Zones into more schools.

She says a similar phenomenon occurred then among Boston Public School administrators. At first, Salwasser was pitching to schools, but then “people started to talk amongst themselves,” Noriega-Murphy said. “Those schools [without Zones] would say, ‘How come I don’t have a Zone in my space? I need that support system. I need that tutorial after school.’ Now it was like people were asking for it.”

It’s a special skill Salwasser has – the ability to inspire people to her cause, like a perpetual team captain. “She shows this charisma that just makes people want to work,” says Noriega-Murphy.

Community-building is a theme in Salwasser’s life, a key to her past as an athlete, her work with Boston Scholar Athletes, and even her own professional success. “Every job I’ve ever had has come through somebody in my village,” she said. “It’s someone I’ve known and put effort into building a relationship with.”

The Foundations

Salwasser’s original village was Cambridge. She was the fourth of five children born to John and Esther Splaine, both of whom spent their careers in the Boston Public School system.

“Some of my earliest memories are going to the Boston teacher’s union and being part of their rotation at their school, whether it was ACC [Another Course to College high school] or Brighton High School, or Boston Day & Evening Academy, where my mom worked,” Salwasser says.

Her other earliest memories are soccer games, soccer balls, soccer fields, soccer cleats. Salwasser credits her parents for introducing her to the sport at age four, but she took over from there. “I was a pretty aggressive 4-year-old. I definitely was in it to win it,” she says. “I played all the time at home, in my backyard, and I played with my brothers.”

“On the field was where I felt most myself and where I felt like I could really create my world and my environment.”

Salwasser poses with her Cambridge youth soccer team in the late '80s.

Salwasser describes her family as large, chaotic, multi-ethnic, with a big spread in the ages of her siblings. “You felt so lost sometimes in my household. It was hard to really find my place, and on the field was where I felt most myself, and where I felt like I could really create my world and my environment.”

That environment she dominated for most of her early life. A three-sport varsity athlete at Buckingham, Browne & Nichols high school, Salwasser was twice named All-New England for basketball. She was All-American in both soccer and lacrosse her junior year. “I was actually better at lacrosse than I was at soccer.”

Then an ACL tear ended her senior lacrosse season before it started, a blow that might have ruined the recruitment options of many high school athletes. But not Salwasser.

“I was a relatively good student, did well on my SATs, and all those pieces, so when I tore my ACL I still had schools interested even though I didn’t play my senior year,” she said. Her academics and her prior performance on the field were enough to get her into Brown University and onto the soccer team, where the domination began again. She was Ivy League Rookie of the Year in 1998, All-Ivy three consecutive years, and captain of the Brown Bears in 2000 — when the team tied its record for wins in a season for the first time in more than 15 years.

Then it was over. Because for a female soccer star in 2000 – unless you were among the elite few who had a shot at playing for the Women’s National Team – there was nowhere to go, no way to make a living playing the sport you loved. “I actually played my senior year at Brown thinking my career would be done,” Salwasser says.

What Salwasser didn’t know at the time was a handful of very famous women were in the process of changing all that.

In 1999, women’s soccer had kicked down the door into the national psyche thanks to the FIFA Women’s World Cup. That summer more than 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, had seen Brandi Chastain of the U.S. team score the Cup-winning penalty kick against China. In terms of total viewership, the final game is still the most-watched women’s sporting event in history.

The members of the 1999 championship team, including Mia Hamm, took advantage of their new profile to spearhead the creation of the Women’s United Soccer Association, the world’s first fully-professional league for women. WUSA kicked off its inaugural season in April 2001, about a month before Salwasser was set to graduate from Brown.

“In the spring of my senior year is when I found out they were launching the pro league, and I was like, shit. I’m 20 pounds overweight. I just was not in the state of mind.” Salwasser scrambled to get in shape, graduated, went to a summer try-out session, and failed to get drafted.

“That was devastating,” Salwasser says. After 18 years of nearly non-stop success, she had to figure out what to do with failure. “I think for me that was a point at which I could say, ‘Do I hang up my boots now and really try to pursue my career or do I really try to pursue this dream of soccer? Do I continue to give it more?’.”

Salwasser turned to her village for advice, and not for the last time. She says she keeps in touch with coaches, mentors, and teammates she hasn’t played with since she was 16. In the summer of 2001, everyone she spoke with told her if soccer was her dream, she should go for it. “So I did,” Salwasser says.

She joined the semi-pro W-League, which acted as a feeder for WUSA. Salwasser captained the Boston Renegades to two consecutive league championships in 2001 and 2002. “It took a lot of focus and a lot of sacrifice,” Salwasser says of the time. “I wasn’t really making any money, and I had to make ends meet for a couple years, and live at home, and do those things to pursue that dream.”

The dream came true in 2003 when Salwasser was called up to the big leagues to play with the Boston Breakers. That year she played alongside Kristine Lilly, a member of the 1999 championship team and the player – male or female – with the most appearances in international matches in the history of the sport. The Breakers had their best year yet, finishing the regular season in first place before losing in the semi-finals to the Washington Freedom.

Salwasser was a developmental player for the Breakers that year, which means she hardly played at all. But to her it didn’t matter. She was there. “The second you join and you’re committing yourself to that team, that team becomes part of your village and part of your family, forever, for that moment, that day, that year, that season.”

The Construction

Given her athletic background, it’s not surprising the way Salwasser waltzes through the English High School, despite being a couple of months away from having her second child. What may be more surprising is that she’s here – in her mid-thirties, and as the boss of a major non-profit – at all. Not many pro athletes have managed such a drastic and successful career change.

Salwasser wasn’t pro for very long. It turned out that 2003, her first year in the league, was the league’s last in existence. The Women’s United Soccer Association folded for financial reasons after just three years.

“It was a little like, ‘Oh my god, what am I gonna do?’ This news was so abrupt, so unpredicted, and just out of the blue for me,” says Salwasser. “I had seen myself continuing to play for as long as they had allowed me to play.”

Faced with the same choice as three years earlier – of whether to put all her passion into making a life as a soccer player or to try to launch a career – Salwasser chose the latter.

While playing semi-pro, Salwasser had picked up some coaching gigs on the side to make ends meet. Connections from those days led her to an opportunity at the New England chapter of America Scores, a non-profit that runs after-school soccer, poetry, and community service programs for kids.

That led to a job as the Executive Director of Charlestown Lacrosse & Learning Center, which Salwasser says she “ran soup to nuts” for two and a half years, because she had no full-time staff. The experience made her intimately familiar with the details of youth development charity work, from writing grant applications to hiring tutors for the kids.

It also poised her to take over the Community Relations Director position at the Boston Celtics’ Shamrock Foundation near the end of 2006. For almost four years, she honed her fundraising and networking skills among the city’s elite donors.

Salwasser was with the Celtics almost five years ago when John Fish, CEO of Suffolk Construction and founder of Boston Scholar Athletes, called her up to offer her the executive director position.

“I came here because I was really moved by John’s passion, and really moved by his vision for what the organization was and where it could be,” Salwasser says. “The opportunity to be at the helm to take it there was really inspiring for me.”

Salwasser has grown the organization to the point that she now oversees a staff of about 40 employees who help more than 4,000 students. The nature of that help has changed dramatically under Salwasser’s guidance, according to people inside the organization.

Roxanna Pirnia was at work with another youth development initiative in the English High School in 2010 and saw the immaturity of BSA programming at that time first hand. “It was very much like, let’s just put this person in this room and hope magical things happen,” she says.

Salwasser has been aggressive about adding structure to Zone programming. She has encouraged the public schools to require rostered athletes to spend a minimum number of hours in the Zone, and uses the cloud computing company Salesforce to track as much information as possible about students.

Of course, she’s also been aggressive about building her team. Pirnia, who is now a senior Zone facilitator, has a story typical of BSA employees. She felt compelled to talk to Salwasser after seeing her speak at a conference for young female athletes. Salwasser saw potential and offered Pirnia an interview even though she was in the process of moving back to her hometown of Los Angeles.

“Bekah was like, ‘Please just come visit and talk to my hiring manager and learn about the opportunities. Just come learn.’ And I was like, ‘No, no I need to go to LA.’ And she was like, ‘Just come in,’” Pirnia says. “It was history from there.”

“She has a magic way,” Noriega-Murphy says of Salwasser’s knack for drawing good people into the organization. “I think she has a very deep understanding of people.”

“Anyone I talk to about BSA, somehow they have a connection with Bekah,” says Pirnia. “It always comes back to her.”

For Salwasser, it’s all a manifestation of her deep belief in the power of sport as a stabilizing force in kids’ lives. “What I feel like I can bring first and foremost is passion,” she says, “leading through passion and leading through example and leading through inspiration for my team, because I’ve lived it, and because I’ve walked it.”

And she’s still walking it. When she’s not pregnant, Salwasser plays for the Boston Aztec, which is now the reserve team for the reincarnation of the Boston Breakers. Salwasser no longer has dreams of playing in the big leagues, but the fire hasn’t burned out yet.

“My husband, every time he watches me play is like, ‘Hey Rocky, calm down. Seriously, this is the old lady league. You don’t need to be knocking people over, Bekah.”

Don’t count on it.

“It’s that intensity that’s part of my game, quite frankly. When I’m in the game, I am thinking about nothing other than the game, and what I can do to win and help my team to win.”

Read Next:

Last Line of Defense

The High-Profile Path of J.W. Carney