Click photo to enlarge
Coach Ralph Walker, right, poses for a photograph with former Olympian Jim Hines, from left, John Boston, and Alameda, Calif. Mayor Marie Gilmore to promote the new Don Grant Alameda Point Youth Track Club, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013 at the College of Alameda, in Alameda. The program, for children ages 3-14, gets underway Feb. 5. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)

ALAMEDA -- Ralph Walker has a passion for track and field. It began during his youth in Alameda, extended to his days at Berkeley High School, where he set school and league records for the junior varsity 100-yard dash in 1970, and continues to the present.

And despite the lingering effects of a 2002 stroke which left him with paralysis on his left side, Walker remains resolute in sharing this passion with others, particularly the young.

For Alamedans, Walker's passion resides in the form of the Don Grant Alameda Point Youth Track Club, serving athletes ages 3-14 free of charge. Founded by Walker in early 2013 and named for the late longtime Encinal High track Coach Don Grant, the nonprofit club has made great strides in a short time. Currently, club members focus on the West Coast Junior Olympics, coming up Thursday through June 29 in Reno, Nevada. To defray costs, Walker is seeking donations.

On a recent sunny afternoon, some 20 athletes showed up for a practice at College of Alameda. And they were happy they did.

Malik Cannon, for one, had plenty to smile about. In addition to the Junior Olympics, Cannon -- who completed seventh grade at Academy of Alameda earlier this month -- looked forward to the Hershey's Track and Field Games state finals last Saturday in San Jose, where he planned to compete in the 100- and 200-meter runs.

"It's a great track team, and he's a very good coach," Cannon said, referring to Walker. "I can't say enough about him."

Beyond the young athletes, the club has won the support of parents. They include Liz and Steve Giddens, whose son, Aiden, recently completed fifth grade at Lum Elementary School.

"It's a great program," Liz Giddens said. "(Aiden) hates to miss track practice."

Aiden Giddens has excelled, too, having qualified for the Hershey's meet in the 800 and 1,600.

"(He) didn't do so well in basketball, but he's really done well here," Liz Giddens said of her son. "It's such a confidence booster. Ralph is so great."

The club's coaching approach also creates a pleasant atmosphere.

"It's more relaxed for the younger kids," Steve Giddens said. "They push the older kids a little more, but they definitely keep them active."

"I'd almost say it's recreational," added fellow Alameda resident Andrea Salgues, whose sons Diego and Téo attend Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley (more loosely known as the Berkeley French-American School). "But it's friendly competition, and (Walker) is really casual about it. That's what appeals to my children."

In the spirit of the 2000 film, "Pay It Forward," Walker credits his high school coach for his commitment to both track and field and the community.

"I learned from the best high school coach, Willie White, whose teams won high school state meets (1980 and 1981 for the boys and in 1974, 1981, 1982 and 1983 for the girls)," Walker said.

Many of the parents -- some themselves from track and field backgrounds -- have picked up from Walker and help out at the practices.

"If I'm out here, coach asks me if I want to help out, and I say, 'Sure, any way I can,'" said Lonnie Lewis IV, a former high school runner and father of club member Lonnie V. "I enjoy watching the kids do their best. Even though they have a lot of energy, maintaining a full lap at an even pace is kind of challenging for them, but it's nice to see them work that out."

"This sort of sport helps you in other sports, too," Andrea Salgues said. "My younger son (Téo) is in basketball and my older son (Diego) is in tennis. And they've made friends, too. It's been a good social outlet for them, as well. It's a win-win situation for just about anybody who comes here."

For the club, the pieces continue to come together.

"We've got a positive group of parents, and that makes a big difference," Walker said.

"It's a wonderful program; it's free," Salgues added. "And Coach Walker is the face -- or really, the heart, of our program. He pulled the funds together, organizes the meets. He started the club and runs this on a shoestring budget."

FYI
The Don Grant Alameda Point Youth Track Club always welcomes new members. Practices take place at the College of Alameda track Tuesdays and Fridays, beginning at 4 p.m. and running until 5 or 5:15 p.m. The club encourages all elementary and middle school students to come out and give track and field a try.
As a nonprofit, the club must rely on donations to keep running.
"I've got to pay for this (College of Alameda) track," said club founder and head Coach Ralph Walker. "I've got to get kids to Reno (for the West Coast Junior Olympics, Thursday through June 29). I've got to pay for hotels, pay for transportation."
Those wishing to donate should make their checks to the Don Grant Alameda Point Youth Track Club. Donations should be sent to the Don Grant Alameda Point Youth Track Club, care of 100 Black Men of the Bay Area, 1638 12th St., Oakland 94607.