Vaughan Anoa’i is a star on the volleyball court and in life

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Vaughan Anoa’i did not want to get the money back.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, his club team, Sunshine Volleyball, reimbursed his players for unnecessary travel expenses. The cost of plane tickets, hotels and meals was a considerable sum. Yet after receiving the news via email, Anoa’i called his coach, Cari Klein, telling him the club could keep the money to cover the cost of another player’s travel in the future.

Klein was stunned. Club volleyball is expensive, but for girls hoping to play in college, it’s necessary. Ultimately, Anoa’i’s contribution helped pay for a teammate whose family had been hit hard by the pandemic, Klein said.

“She was able to make two trips because of Vaughan’s generosity,” Klein said. “It changes the lives of these children. “

Anoa’i, an elder at Archer School for Girls who got involved in Georgetown, stays with the life-changing business. She is starting a charity initiative called Block Back, where she will donate $ 25 for every block she does in the last two seasons of her club career. Anoa’i plans to donate approximately $ 6,000.

Money comes with a bigger purpose. Volleyball, especially at the club level, is under-represented. Anoa’i knows that. As a Samoan and black woman, she wants more inclusiveness.

Vaughan Anoa’i stands back to back with his father, Reno Anoa’i, in a Letter of Intent signing ceremony.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s a predominantly white sport,” Anoa’i said. “In this initiative, I am the face of it in some ways – just making sure that I serve as a role model just to [ensure] that girls of color, young women of color can play volleyball and that they should feel comfortable and welcomed in this environment.

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The value of giving back is embedded in Samoan culture. A special tradition, Fa’alavelave, asks friends and family to give gifts or money at special events in a person’s life.

Anoa’i’s father, Reno, comes from a Samoan family tree famous for professional wrestlers, like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He pushed his daughter to be charitable, and she started volunteering at soup kitchens when she was 8 years old. Reno is now the Managing Director of Knokx Pro Entertainment, a professional wrestling academy and promotion company he founded with his fellow professional wrestler Rikishi in Van Nuys, not far from his family home in Studio City.

Anoa’i is proud of this heritage and these values. When she was younger, she boasted to people that she had a hundred cousins, her mother, Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, said.

“She’s extremely proud – she’s very involved in culture, because culture is about giving and respecting,” said Smith-Anoa’i, Executive Vice President of Diversity, Inclusion and Communications at ViacomCBS .

At the same time, those close to Anoa’i describe her as naturally generous and enterprising. They say she’s been like this since she was young, protective of her friends.

“His influence is everywhere,” said Kim Smith, athletic director of Archer School. “In every conversation she has, in every group she has.”

Vaughan Anoa'i receives a hug from a family friend.

Vaughan Anoa’i receives a hug from a family friend during his letter of intent signing ceremony.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Anoa’i’s life slowed down, she took time to reflect on herself and the economic impact of the coronavirus. Block Back was born from a simple idea to connect one of his passions, volleyball, with a way to give back to the community.

Over the past two years, Anoa’i saved her stipend and her birthday money with the intention of donating the $ 6,000 to four volleyball clubs: Starlings Volleyball, USA; Long Beach Mizuno Volleyball Club; Actyve Volleyball Club; and the Volleyball Soleil.

Klein praised “the maturity of her thinking ahead, to have that kind of maturity and thought process of” Hey, this is going to affect volleyball people and girls in a negative way, and let me see this that I can do. ‘”

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There is only one way to play volleyball in college. One pipeline. Klein says the path to a Division I opportunity goes straight through the club.

“Maybe there are two girls a year in the country who don’t play club volleyball but get a spot somehow,” Klein said. “There is only one way to overcome this. “

But the club is “DearAs Smith-Anoa’i pointed out. It adds up – plane tickets, hotels, food. In addition, establishments are almost never located in low-income areas.

Vaughan Anoa'i is flanked by his mother Tiffany Smith-Anoa'i and his father Reno Anoa'i during the signing of the letter of intent.

Vaughan Anoa’i, seated between his mother Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i and his father Reno Anoa’i, celebrates during the signing ceremony of his letter of intent.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

This can lead to a lack of under-represented groups. According to the official demographic database, 70% of all NCAA college volleyball players are white, while 11% are black.

This imbalance starts early, and Anoa’i felt it firsthand, with trips to cities like Louisville, Ky., Which she described as “culture shock.”

“As a girl of color, she recognizes that sometimes she’s the only one at certain tournaments,” Smith-Anoa’i said. She says, ‘Inclusiveness is very important to me, and I want to make sure that other girls see me doing it and that I tell them that I see them. “”

Anoa’i enlisted the help of a graphic designer to create a logo for Block Back, which features the bold “Vaughan’s Block Back” lettering above purple flowers under two palms stretched out to block a volleyball ball. The image is not only an endorsement of charity, but also an expression of Anoa’i’s identity – the flowers represent her Samoan heritage, as she specifically requested that the palms be a darker color. .

“A lot of people who come from under-represented backgrounds will use sport as a vehicle or a pipeline to college, and I think that’s why it’s so important and so vital these days,” Anoa said. i about the need for representation. .

She hopes to be a beacon for inclusiveness, both this season and beyond. Anoa’i wants to fight stereotypes in all areas – athletes of color as “dumb jocks,” she said, and Samoan athletes as mere professional wrestlers or soccer players. After completing her undergraduate degree, she will fulfill the dream of going to Georgetown Law School and be the first Samoan and Black volleyball player in the history of the program.

In the meantime, every shattering block she converts for Sunshine Volleyball in her final season will count a little more. She hopes her initiative will send a message.

“I would like people to feel the desire and also feel the need to look within themselves,” said Anoa’i, “and recognize that they have the power to create a service or to create a change.”

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