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Atlanta's First Family of Volleyball

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 7, 2001
By: Michelle Hiskey

At 39, Arleen Hughes still has the jumps, power and smarts to rank among the best volleyball players in Atlanta. She's 5 feet 9 and plays taller (the best compliment in this sport), a human exclamation point all over the net, an outside hitter with a killer smash. Say the V-word and her face glows like an acolyte before a cross, a bursting energy she gets not just from playing, but also from refereeing, organizing tournaments, running a youth program and welcoming newcomers to the sport.

Delroza Hughes noticed all that back in 1994 when he was fresh out of the Marines, looking for game and a coaching gig. They shared a passion for volleyball and the experience of walking into a gym and seeing no other African-Americans serving or spiking. Two years later, Arleen and Del got engaged. When their wedding date conflicted with an important tournament, they re-scheduled their ceremony.

They raised two girls, Arleen's niece Trenace Dave, who earned a volleyball scholarship to Albany State, and Arleen's daughter Nikki Hawkins, so skilled at age 12 that adult players ask for her autograph. "The first family of Atlanta volleyball," they've been called.

For Arleen Hughes, family and volleyball are two threads twisted into a lifeline that helped lift her out of the housing projects of Chattanooga into a comfortable middle class life in Stone Mountain. And now she eagerly gives back to the sport that has given her so much.

Arleen was the tomboy among four kids of a single mom who worked two jobs, one loading spools in a yarn factory. She'd return home covered in lint. "We all had to pull together to cook and clean," Arleen remembered. "We ate a lot of beans and cornbread."

Arleen's dad lived 20 minutes away. "Papa was a rolling stone," she said with a laugh, telling how he fathered 17 kids with five women, marrying none but the last. Everyone in the extended clan knew each other and got along, she said.

She and a half-sister decided they wanted to go to high school together. They knew they could both transfer to the school they wanted if one of them made a sports team at that school.

They tried out for volleyball, 50 girls competing for two spots. Long-legged, athletic Arleen had never played, but made the cut. Her team won three state championships, and as a senior she was named most valuable player in Tennessee.

Middle Tennessee State offered her a scholarship, but she still had to fill out a financial aid form. On it, her family listed their income at $6,000 a year.

She played and graduated with a business administration degree in information systems, and came to Atlanta in 1983.

Volleyball remained a focal point in her life. She learned how to referee and volunteered for everything, from scheduling high school officials to running camps. She played on a semi-pro women's team that traveled the country for tournaments. Her volleyball contacts became a family for her in Atlanta.

"I'd like to be known as the queen of volleyball," she said. "Someone who pulls people together to have fun and to know they can always depend on me."

Team is like a family

In 1988, Arleen was married and pregnant when she found out her sister, Darleen, a teenaged single mom living in the Chattanooga projects, could no longer take care of Arleen's 11-year-old niece Trenace. Arleen became her legal guardian. A few months later, Arleen's daughter Nikki Hawkins was born.

Arleen continued playing, two girls in tow, teaching Trenace some basic volleyball skills to keep her from being bored in the gym.

"A volleyball team is like a family," Arleen says. "You accept members for whatever the outcomes. I practice the same thing on the volleyball court as I do in my family. Teamwork. Pulling together. . . . You encourage where there is failure, and push to be better."

Trenace made a Junior Olympic team as a scrappy defender. At one of her competitions in 1994, Arleen was selling concessions when a man kept coming back to buy Snickers bars. Arleen couldn't help but notice Del Hughes, a black man in a sport dominated by white women.

Del came from a tough area of Detroit. His mom died when he was 7, and he was raised by his dad's girlfriend. At 17, his dad, a heavy gambler, died. Other friends died from crime or drugs.

"I always had a drive to do a little bit better than that," he said. After high school, he joined the Marines and got into volleyball while stationed in Hawaii, where it's bigger than basketball. He helped coach the Marines' elite volleyball team, and landed at Albany State after leaving the service.

He and Arleen have been married since 1996. Spending so much time at the court, Del says, allows them to "see each other at our best and worst, and we pick each other up because of that. I got lucky to have a wife so involved in what I am, and double blessed to have a family so passionately involved in it, too."

Skills bring scholarships

Del's connections helped Trenace get a scholarship to Albany State, where she played for the 1999 SIAC champions.

Now 23, she's a junior analyst at Powertel. She plays with Atlanta Boom alongside some of the best SIAC players and alumni, coached by Del. Her life in the housing projects of Chattanooga seems distant.

"Here, I have goals and something to look forward to," she said. "Now everyone back home says, 'You're doing great. No kids, not married yet.' Everyone's very proud of me, and I thank Auntie for that."

Nikki, meanwhile, grew up on the court. At age 5, she could "pepper" against a wall to pass time. When that happened, "I could see she was really in control of the ball and I got chill bumps," Arleen said. "I knew God blessed me with a volleyball player."

Now a 5-foot-5 seventh-grader at Marist, she plays setter, the quarterback of the court. She can ace players like her mom with her powerful jump serve. It's almost a cinch she will have her pick of Division I scholarships, not just for her skills but also for the diversity she represents.

"There aren't very many good black setters," she said. "But it doesn't matter where I go, as long as I have a good time and it's a good school."

On the run all week

Arleen works as a product specialist and computer systems analyst for American Software Inc. in Buckhead. When he's not coaching and playing, Del, 33, is a business manager for Wow Appeal, a Web development and branding company.

Each week they race around Atlanta to keep up a schedule that could fry a personal organizer. Monday nights are free play in Midtown and officiating in a men's league. Tuesday and Thursday are coed and men's leagues in Marietta. Wednesday and Friday are practices. On the weekend, it's tournaments and the Starlings, their program for middle school girls. Outdoor grass and sand leagues start up in the summer.

Even at home, volleyball reigns. They play grass doubles on their lawn. They've even taught their cat, Buddy, to set and spike little balls of wadded-up foil.

Last summer, Arleen, Trenace and Nikki teamed to win a gold medal in the grass triples at the Georgia Games. They called their team "Generations."

"When are you going to sit down?" Arleen's mom, Earnestine Terrell, asked her.

"Maybe never," Arleen replied.

Setting girls up to succeed

The Starlings program is their latest project. It aims to introduce low income, middle school girls of color --- girls with roots like Arleen's --- to what is, on the competitive club level, an expensive and elitist sport.

On Sunday afternoons for the past two months, 50 girls showed up, sporadically, for the program at Southside High School. They are like the girls Arleen and Trenace knew in Chattanooga.

"Some of them have parents who don't know where they are," Arleen said. "And don't care."

She and Del believe volleyball can be these girls' way up. So does the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, which gave them a $10,000 grant. Research shows that teenage girls who play sports are 92 percent less likely to drop out of school, 80 percent less likely to have an unwanted pregnancy.

Bolstered by the rising number of athletic scholarships for women, 25 Starlings from 30 clubs nationwide have gotten volleyball scholarships to schools such as Clark Atlanta. To get that good, girls need more than high school competition. If they make a Junior Olympic team, Starlings pays for travel and other expenses.

If not for volleyball, Arleen says, "I would not know where I would be. Maybe working in the same factory as my mom worked. Maybe a teenage mom. I don't think I would have had a way out."

But now these girls do, with her help.

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