Ground-breaking female NFL coach speaks at 20th Philly City Year celebration

Jen Welter, the first woman to join an NFL team's coaching staff, addressed the crowd at a Women’s Leadership Luncheon hosted by City Year Philadelphia (Angela Gervasi/for WHYY)

Jen Welter, the first woman to join an NFL team's coaching staff, addressed the crowd at a Women’s Leadership Luncheon hosted by City Year Philadelphia (Angela Gervasi/for WHYY)

Jen Welter stands 5 feet 2 inches tall, her stature barely punctuated by a pair of ankle boots. But, she reminded a room full of young women Tuesday afternoon, that didn’t stop her from playing and coaching professional football.

“Pretty much, my career could be characterized about being told what I couldn’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t do. And, thankfully, what I didn’t do was listen,” said Welter, who was the first woman to join an NFL team’s coaching staff. She was a linebacker coach for the Arizona Cardinals.

Welter addressed the crowd at a Women’s Leadership Luncheon hosted by City Year Philadelphia. For 20 years, the nonprofit educational program has placed mentors in Philly schools. Each year, about 205 tutors work in schools in need of resources, tutoring and mentoring students between third and 10th grade.

Kesha Swaringer, a sophomore who dreams of becoming a global hematologist, is one of those students. Her classes usually consist of about 32 students, she said, making it difficult for students to get one-on-one attention.

City Year — and specifically Iana Garrick — helped change that for Kesha.

“We have a lot of kids assigned to one classroom with just one teacher and having City Year there to assist the teachers is kind of a good thing because you have more attention on the students than just you and the whole class,” Kesha said.

After graduating from La Salle University with a biology degree, Garrick was looking for gap-year programs when she stumbled upon City Year Philadelphia. Now, she works at Kesha’s school, helping in the classroom, tutoring math and English, and crafting after-school programs based on “Jeopardy!” and basketball. For Garrick, the 9½-hour work day is rigorous — and rewarding.

“She can see herself in me,” Garrick said of Kesha. “She knows now that she can be a doctor because she knows someone that’s four years ahead of her.”

Now, through programs such as City Year and GEAR UP, Kesha is able to meet with advisers about her post-high school career and enroll in early courses for college credits.

Permission to dream

Welter’s keynote speech drew laughter as she recounted her unlikely athletic career. In 2015, she began working as an assistant coaching intern for the Arizona Cardinals.

Before, she’d coached — and once competed — for the Arena League’s Texas Revolution team. Her Philly roots didn’t run much deeper than a congratulatory nod to Nick Foles, but the mission of City Year, she said, aligns closely with her beliefs.

“This was a dream that I was never permitted to have, because there was no woman I could look to, and say, ‘I want to be her when I grow up,’ ” Welter said. “So for me, to be able to give that vision, that purpose and even that permission for girls to dream bigger than I ever did, that’s why this is so important.”

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