When SongXi He immigrated with her family from southern China, she was a somewhat overwhelmed sixth-grader who found joy jogging alone around Oakland’s Lake Merritt.

But what a difference just a few years can make.

Now a poised senior at Oakland Tech, SongXi is a member of the cross-country team and is making plans to graduate and attend college to study nursing or pre-med.

She attributes at least part of her transformation to the people at Running for a Better Oakland, a nonprofit whose mission is to motivate and inspire local kids through mentorship and training.

“At first, in middle school, I was a very shy girl and when I got into high school, I decided to make a change,” SongXi said. “I heard about RBO from my Spanish teacher and she told me how amazing the program was and I decided to join to meet new people and improve my confidence.”

Before joining RBO, SongXi would run by herself around the lake or the Roosevelt Middle School campus.

In RBO, she found a community of like-minded people, met new friends and began to hone her craft.

A passion for running

“In my freshmen year I was afraid to join the (cross-country) team and I was slow and I didn’t know anyone,” she said. “I did a lot of training with RBO and found my passion with running. It encouraged me to do something that I was afraid to do, so I decided to join the team and continue doing something I like.”

The RBO program currently has almost 190 student participants from 72 schools and is open to all children from grades K-12.

Registration is free and RBO provides free shoes, t-shirts, water bottles, sports bras and other necessities and even covers race entry fees.

In addition, RBO offers scholarships to high schoolers and is currently in the midst of a fundraising drive to support all of its programs.

SongXi He (left), 18, an Oakland Tech senior and Running for a Better Oakland student, trains with her RBO coach Monica Chan in Oakland on Nov. 6. (Photo courtesy of Running for a Better Oakland)

Last year, the organization gave out $21,700 in scholarships to 11 high school seniors.

“I think this year we’re trying to do the same or more given that a lot of folks are in dire need of funding for college, so we want to repeat what we did last year or add more recipients,” said Norman La, who leads RBO’s fundraising committee.

RBO also plans to increase its recruitment activities and aims to add nearly 100 more participants in 2022, said La, himself an Oakland Tech alumnus.

“I wish there was a program just like this when I was growing up in Oakland,” La said. “Now it’s available for any kid in Oakland and kids in neighboring cities, and we definitely want to make sure it’s a long-standing program.”

From mentor to executive director

In addition to increasing the number of students, mentors and coaches, RBO this year brought on Executive Director Diana Leon.

Leon joined RBO as a volunteer mentor and coach about five years ago and now guides its expansion, among other organizational efforts.

“Where do we want to take the organization, how do we want to grow and how big do we want to get?” Leon said.

“The biggest satisfaction that we get is watching these kids grow and evolve as they’re becoming incredible human beings.”

Diana Leon, Running for a Better Oakland

“We want to improve the monetary amount for the scholarships because a lot of students in RBO truly represent the diversity of Oakland,” she said. “The biggest satisfaction that we get is watching these kids grow and evolve as they’re becoming incredible human beings.”

For many students, including SongXi, the benefits are as quantifiable as time itself.

“My very first race I did was the Turkey Trot in 2019, around the lake. I thought I couldn’t even finish it because I never ran a 5K before and my mentor helped push me through it,” said SongXi, who recruited both of her younger sisters into the program. “I finished it in under 35 minutes.”

This Thanksgiving, she finished the same race in 23 minutes and 20 seconds.

More information about RBO can be found on its website, as well as how to sign up for the program or donate to the organization.

Kiley Russell, Bay City News

Kiley Russell writes primarily for Local News Matters on issues related to equity and the environment. A Bay Area native, he has lived most of his life in Oakland. He studied journalism at San Francisco State University, worked for the Associated Press and the former Contra Costa Times, among other outlets. He has covered everything from state legislatures, local governments, federal and state courts, crime, growth and development, political campaigns of various stripes, wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.