Heroic athletes/coaches

HEROIC ATHLETES: Kids Learning the Power of Giving Back

Teaching Players Citizenship

Through Community Service Projects

 By Doug Abrams

 One night after a preseason practice a few years ago, I sat down with a few players on our Central Missouri Eagles Youth Hockey Association’s high school club team. I was the team’s goalie coach and served on the association’s board of directors. The board had recently adopted an ambitious credo for the association’s teams and families: “Building Good Athletes and Great Citizens.” Now the association sought to insure that the credo would spur citizenship education through hockey, rather than rest as an idle promise on a banner or letterhead.

This column describes the national, state, and local recognition that the Eagles association received for its teams’ service projects that lived up to the credo. Other high school programs and youth teams of all ages can chalk up similar achievements with service projects that make a difference.

“Now We’re Doing It Worldwide”

The Eagles high school players voted unanimously to make our opening game a benefit for the local children’s hospital. Our home games usually drew about 300 fans, and we offered free admission that night to anyone who brought one or more new stuffed animals for the sick and injured patients.

We hoped to collect about 100 donations, but we sorely underestimated community generosity. Thanks to local media coverage and flyers distributed earlier in the week at the ice arena, we collected more than 500, mostly from the game’s attendees, but many from the players’ families, friends, and classmates. Three weeks later, the high school team’s tri-captains spent a Saturday afternoon at the hospital visiting with the young patients and distributing the toys.

In their thank-you letter, hospital staff described “how powerfully these dedicated [Eagles players] have impacted the lives of the sick and injured children. . . . Their work delivering stuffed animals, smiles, and friendship to our patients has brought immeasurable happiness.”

The Eagles high school team continued the Children’s Hospital Night once each year, and the number of stuffed animals collected swelled to nearly a thousand. Opposing teams sometimes brought stuffed animals to the game, and the teams’ cooperative efforts helped produce clean, hard-fought contests.

One year, the Children’s Hospital Night collected so many stuffed animals that physicians distributed some when they performed pediatric surgeries and other procedures in developing nations overseas. “Hockey lets us put smiles on kids’ faces,” an Eagles tri-captain told a reporter, “and now we’re doing it worldwide.”

Setting an Example

The high school team’s players were the Eagles association’s oldest, and the Children’s Hospital community service project set an example for the younger teams — the mites, squirts, pee wees, and bantams whose players ranged in age from five to fourteen. Before an early-season practice every year, each younger team held a locker room meeting, sometimes led by the coaches and sometimes led by the captains. The players voted on a project and then performed it, guided by their parents and coaches, who reinforced the virtues of volunteerism. The players often chose their own projects, though the youngest teams would choose from projects suggested by the adults.

Over the years, Eagles younger teams collected toys and clothes for the local shelter that protects abused and neglected children. And collected hundreds of new and used backpacks for abused and neglected children in the local family court. And hundreds of cans of food for needy families served by the local food bank. And hundreds of children’s books for county health clinics that serve needy local families.

Each project enriched community life, worthy accomplishments for teens and pre-teens. The projects united each individual Eagles team toward a common goal, and the projects also united the various teams as they helped one another accomplish their projects. Because the winter’s prime focus was on learning and playing hockey, the younger teams (like the high school team) performed their projects in a discrete period, usually about two weeks.

Dividends For the Players

Essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that by volunteering to help others, people also help themselves. Recalling his early impressions when he first joined the Eagles, one high school player wrote this in a school essay: “When I learned of the Children’s Hospital Game and other community service projects done by the Eagles, I was in shock. I said to myself ‘What kind of hockey team is this?’ I quickly discovered that it was not just a hockey team; it was another step in life.”

Many Eagles parents and coaches sensed that besides this immediate personal enrichment from community outreach, performing service projects earned their players a credential that would soon enhance their applications to prospective employers and colleges that value backgrounds marked by civic engagement and selflessness. Players now had narratives for the essays and personal interviews that these applications typically require, and materials for the attachments that the applications sometimes permit.

Eagles players earned plenty for their future narratives and attachments because media coverage led national, state, and local leaders to recognize their volunteer efforts. A Missouri U.S. Senator and two local U.S. House members praised the Eagles, and their statements were published in the Congressional Record. Missouri’s Governor met with the Eagles and issued a proclamation honoring the players for public service initiatives that “have brought honor to Missouri.” The Missouri state Senate and House of Representatives passed resolutions honoring Eagles teams for “setting a positive example.”

Eagles appeared on local radio and television. One local daily newspaper editorialized that the Eagles “have won big” with the community service projects, and the paper earlier called the high school team “a philanthropic organization on skates.”

The Eagles association received the Honoring the Game Award, presented annually by Positive Coaching Alliance, based in northern California. The Award recognized three youth sports programs nationally that “strive to win, but also strive to help their players develop skills that will serve them throughout their lifetimes.”

“The Eagles credo says it all,” read PCA’s citation, but “it’s not enough just to say it all. The Eagles do it all too.”

 Teaching Citizenship Through Sports

Integrating a community service project into a youth league season is not difficult to accomplish. First, the team or league should enlist support from the parents and coaches. Then empower the players by letting them vote for their favored project. Give youthful generosity a chance, and assure players the needed encouragement and support once they decide. The players can rise to the occasion, even while they and their families also perform whatever fundraising project the sports association requires or urges to help contain the rising financial costs of their own enrollment.

Philanthropy and community service are learned impulses, and the impulses can endure. I happened to see a former Eagles high school player at a recent social gathering. Now in his early thirties, he still talks about the team’s stuffed animals drives for the children’s hospital — and he still donates time to worthy causes.

One parent told PCA what the Eagles’ high school community service projects taught his son, who was then a college junior: “He has chosen to forego a personal opportunity in order to travel to Mississippi . . . to volunteer in hurricane rebuilding efforts. He has learned to contribute.”

In communities large and small, sports can be a force for positive good. When youth leaguers volunteer their time and energies, parents and coaches teach citizenship through team membership and athletic competition. The players learn about what President Barack Obama called “the beauty of service.” And about President George H.W. Bush’s instruction that “any definition of a successful life must include serving others.”