Since arriving in spring 2003 as head coach, Dean Curtis has helped build Pennsbury High School's boys' lacrosse program. But his focus also has been on teaching his players life lessons and compassion. When one Pennsbury player was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2005, Curtis quickly organized Lax 4 Lives with the help of players, parents and other coaches. The indoor lacrosse tournament drew teams from 15 other schools and raised about $10,000 for Brian Smeltzer and his family to help offset non-medical expenses. Part of the funds also were donated to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
But Curtis didn't stop there. He was determined to keep Brian connected with his teammates, a fact that Brian's mother, Sharon, credits with her son's recovery and return to the lacrosse field just eight months after his treatment. Curtis brought videos of the lacrosse games to the hospital and visited with his young player.
"He went above and beyond being a coach," says Sharon Smeltzer. "He always made it so Brian was not the 'forgotten' lacrosse player. He was so amazing that way."
Buoyed by the success of the 2005 event, Curtis has continued the Lax 4 Lives fundraiser every year since and donates the proceeds to a member of the lacrosse community in need. In 2007, part of the tournament earnings went to the family of Chuck Cassidy, a slain Philadelphia police officer whose son is a lacrosse player, and to The Tomorrow Fund at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for research on bone marrow transplants.
Curtis, 37, also makes it a point to teach his players about responsibility: that their actions on and off the field reflect who they are.
"He knows we can play to our full potential and stresses the fact that there is only so much he can do -- it's up to us," says Sean Mathews, former lacrosse captain, now a freshman at Wesley College. "He's really inspirational."
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Donald W. Green Jr., Jacksonville
Giving kids a chance to go to college through karate
Key values associated with Tang Soo Do: honor and respect for your parents and elders.
In Jacksonville -- a city with one of the highest high school dropout rates in the country -- dozens of high-risk high school students are finding a beacon of hope, support and the promise of a bright future because of Donald W. Green Jr.
Green is the co-founder and Tang Soo Do master instructor for Careers and Karate, a program based out of the Florida Community College at Jacksonville that provides a nurturing support system and discipline for inner-city youths who face broken homes and poverty. This program combines Korean-style martial arts instruction with homework assistance through one-on-one mentorship, and it guarantees a college scholarship for every member who earns an advanced belt and graduates from high school.
Since the program's inception six years ago, 43 students have participated. Eight members are currently enrolled in college, and two have graduated.
Green, 55, has assumed the role of not only a martial arts instructor but also a father figure, all on top of working 80 hours a week as the community college's executive vice president for instruction and student services. He has worked tirelessly, helping to raise more than $30,000 for college scholarships and taking his students to karate tournaments and on field trips.
"He has been a mentor and a father figure to me because he has always been there for me when I needed his help or advice," says Kurison Young, who began the program at 16 and now attends Florida Community College with the hopes of becoming a pharmacist. "He always got me in the right direction to fulfill my dreams as a student."
Green is doing more than teaching a sport. He's teaching a value system, says Edythe Abdullah, the co-founder of Careers and Karate who nominated Green. "There are a list of key values associated with Tang Soo Do: honor and respect for your parents and elders, loyalty to your friends and family, and self-respect. It has to do with being goal-conscious and working toward being your best."
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Allison Ishii, Honolulu
Crossing an ocean to offer support to her player
She has pulled everyone together into one team to help Jana and her family.
When girls' tennis coach Allison Ishii learned last May that one of her tennis players, Jana Wang, had been diagnosed with bone cancer, she wasted no time springing into action to help. Ishii, 23, organized fundraisers for the family, including selling green (Jana's favorite color) T-shirts and wristbands with the word "Believe" on them. She also became involved in the school's blood drive, encouraging her family members to donate and taking the time during the drive to speak with students who were donating.
"Allison helps exemplify the school motto 'One Team,' " says nominator Lily Driskill, assistant headmaster at 'Iolani School. "She has pulled everyone together into one team to help Jana and her family."
Ishii worked with 'Iolani School teachers and students to send over a calendar each month with one joke per day to cheer up Jana, 14, who moved to Houston for treatment. And even before she began rallying 'Iolani behind Jana, Ishii was helping the community of Honolulu through service projects for the homeless she organizes with the tennis team and her volunteer efforts with Meals on Wheels each Friday night.
At her own expense, Ishii has flown twice to Houston to visit Jana. During her visit, Ishii played tennis with Jana and even started coaching several of the other patients at the Ronald McDonald House there. She already has made plans to visit this summer, when Jana will undergo surgery again.
"She treats me the same as before -- we still joke around, and everything's the same," Wang says. "She calls me every day and just tells me about what's going on at school. She just says stuff to make me laugh. I really love her. She's like a big sister to me."
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Bill Kalenius, Vancouver, Wash.
Getting his club back in the water after a natural disaster
He works tirelessly to teach club members how the values of teamwork and dedication in rowing relate to real life.
After a tornado whipped through Vancouver, Wash., on Jan. 10, destroying nearly all of the Vancouver Lake Crew's rowing equipment, some devastated community members assumed that the club, which serves middle school and high school rowers, would take at least a year to get up and running again.
Not if head coach Bill Kalenius had anything to say about it: He and hundreds of volunteers came together to restore the rowing site and made sure club members were back in the water in 48 hours.
"I have years of life experience behind me, but I have never seen anything like the turnaround that happened at Vancouver Lake Crew," says Dale Read Jr., who along with his wife, Priscilla, nominated Kalenius for the award. "We came back with dedication and spirit and said, 'We've got a job to do.' That's the effect that Bill has on these kids."
Kalenius, 55, a veteran rower who has been battling cancer for several years, started the club in January 2002 with the help of other coaches and volunteers who donated both equipment and time. Soon after, the club offered programs for rowers ages 7 and up. Today he works tirelessly to teach club members how the values of teamwork and dedication in rowing relate to real life. He has even helped high school rowers look for college scholarship opportunities.
"Bill's vision is to get kids involved in rowing and gain the benefits," says Kate Benson, another Vancouver Lake Crew coach. "The kids love him because he cares about them, and the parents love him because the kids love him. His heart for the kids is what keeps this thing going."
Andrew Read, a high school senior, wasn't involved in sports until he joined Vancouver Lake Crew. He says the enthusiasm Kalenius has for the sport is contagious. "I think one of the reasons he's so effective at spreading love for rowing is he's so sincere about it," Read says. "Just to be around him and talk to him, you can't help but get excited about rowing. He has a great, infectious personality."
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Mark Rocha, Clark Fork, Idaho
Building a community and a center where kids can grow
Rocha spends his days inspiring others, his actions do not go unnoticed, especially by the kids.
Mark Rocha has a gift, friends say: He gives self-worth to kids who don't believe they have any.
Rocha, a girls' basketball coach at Clark Fork Junior/Senior High School in Clark Fork, Idaho, makes it his mission to seek out children in the small rural town and introduce them to athletics. Formerly the director of a residential treatment program for kids with drug and alcohol problems, Rocha resigned about a year and a half ago to focus on mentoring local youths full time. He and his wife, Penny, were hosting after-school programs out of their home and at other locations, but they dreamed of operating from a bigger central base.
Now, they've realized their dream. A 10,000-square-foot youth center, funded entirely with donations and built by volunteers, opens May 3, in time for the Clark Fork High School prom. The center, called "The Filling Station," has basketball and volleyball courts, along with foosball and pool tables, says Laura Emmer, a friend who nominated Rocha for the award. The athletic courts will be especially valuable, Emmer says, because there is only one court at the school that all teams share.
While the youth center was being built, Rocha took kids on after-school hiking and rock-climbing trips, hosted Bible study groups and worked to ensure that the nearly 200 teenagers in the area had plenty of fun and safe activities to do.
"If I put you at a street corner in our village, you would be able to pick Mark out of a crowd; he's the one with teens around him all wanting his undivided attention," Emmer says. "He shows them that someone really does love them and cares about what happens in their life."
Rocha's desire to help spills over into his personal life. Over the years, he and his wife have housed many teens who are going through rough times. The Rocha family has collected a closet full of clothes to give away for any situation, from prom dresses to T-shirts to shoes, Emmer says. And school officials admire the dedication of Rocha, who also fills in as a substitute teacher.
"The youth center provides a safe haven for the kids to stay out of trouble," says Clark Fork principal Phil Kemink. "He always tries to help the kids ... he's really stepped up as a very good mentor."
And it becomes clear that while Rocha spends his days inspiring others, his actions do not go unnoticed, especially by the kids. "Mark is the most caring coach because he cares more about if we stay a team way more than if we win or lose," says Brocklyn Thornton, an eighth-grader and one of Rocha's basketball players. "He does what is best for us. If we are injured, he doesn't make us play, even if he needs us to be in the game."
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Zachary Smalls, Graham, Wash.
Training kids for sports and for life
Smalls makes everyone around him better. Whenever he speaks, you just want to listen. You want to do what he says.
Zachary Smalls believes that when kids gain confidence in their athletic abilities, that confidence transfers into the classroom. That's why he started ZeeSpeed Training for Life Youth Endurance Program, an endurance and conditioning summer camp for Tacoma-area kids. About 95 young athletes between the ages of 11 and 20 take part in the eight-week camp, which Smalls started in 1998 as a way to keep kids in shape and off the streets over the summer, as well as to teach them lifelong lessons of dedication, perseverance and the satisfaction that comes from setting and achieving goals.
Smalls welcomes anyone to camp, but he focuses on recruiting high-risk, low-income and/or single-parent households and kids who have previous encounters with juvenile authorities or who are lagging behind at school. He often waives the $200 camp fee for those who don't have the financial means. Every kid who attends camp receives a pair of running shoes, T-shirt, bag and wristband, and Smalls has gotten local organizations to donate money and time, like a yoga facility that donated two weeks of classes last summer. He also has formed a partnership with the Seattle Seahawks. For almost a decade, the Seahawks community relations department has worked with Smalls to provide private tours of the training facility as well as appearances by the team's drum line.
"He's off the hook," says nominator Kristie Milles, who has helped with the camp since her daughter signed up four years ago. "When I found out he did everything by himself, my jaw dropped." Smalls, 37, also has a full-time job as a Tacoma police officer. But he now has a staff, which he says he's extremely grateful for, to help manage the increase in applications and day-to-day operations.
The lessons that Smalls teaches have carried on and come full circle. Former camper Ryan Ancheta-Major says Smalls was truly inspiring, so much so that the young man has returned to help out. "In the beginning (I went to the camp) to help me get in shape for sports," he says. "But now I go back to help the younger guys and use the leadership skills I've learned from Zach and the camp."
Ancheta-Major says Smalls helps participants succeed not only in athletics, but also in life. "It's a speed camp, but it's training for life," he says. "As much as we're getting a physical workout, we're [also] getting leadership and character skills. He makes me want to be just like him. He makes everyone around him better. Whenever he speaks, you just want to listen. You want to do what he says."
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Kristin Stahley, Lansing, Mich.
Leading her team with extraordinary courage
Stahley's positive outlook always helps the team, in and out of the pool, and is an inspiration.
At just 27, Kristin Stahley knows that a swim meet against the toughest of rivals isn't the biggest battle someone can face in her lifetime. Stahley battles rhabdomyosarcoma, a form of soft-tissue cancer that causes multiple tumors to form throughout the body. Despite the excruciating chemotherapy treatments and other painful side effects from the disease, she shows up to the pool every day to coach her team.
"It's clear she has a passion for coaching," says Tom Dudley, president of the Capital Area Swim Team and one of Stahley's nominators. "She has a personality that's always upbeat, even if she's having a bad day. Even when she has treatments or doctor appointments, she's always at practice." In fact, Stahley plans to travel to Holland in late August for treatment that is not available in the United States, but she is scheduling the trip to be sure she will be home for one of the biggest meets of the season.
Nominator Gary Henderson recognizes the effect Stahley has on the swimmers by addressing her condition and not shying away. "The kind of strength she shows is amazing," Henderson says. "She always jokes around with the kids about her condition. She wants to make them feel comfortable. The kids are at a very impressionable age, and she gives them an additional outlook on life to address things with a positive attitude."
Swimmer Ashley Henderson agrees that Stahley's positive outlook always helps the team, in and out of the pool, and is an inspiration to her. "She shows us to never give up on life, no matter how tough it is, and to keep on trying," Ashley says. "Her outlook on life makes me want to be a better person and to always try my hardest, whether I'm in or out of the pool."
Stahley herself has been swimming since she was 12, competing in high school, college and club teams and the U.S. Masters swimming organization after graduation. She has been coaching for USA Swimming, high school and country club teams for 10 years, getting more serious within the past five years. Her club has about 125 members, with 15 to 40 boys and girls ages 8 to 18 on each team.
Stahley also has worked with her swimmers to overcome obstacles in their own lives. When one of her athletes was diagnosed with diabetes, Stahley coached her outside of practice to allow her to continue competitively swimming, despite her medical condition. She also helped one swimmer rehab after major shoulder surgery. The athlete, within one year, was named swimmer of the year by the Lansing State Journal, set a school record in the 50-yard freestyle and was named an All-American for her performance.
Ashley looks up to Stahley not only as a swim coach, but also as a role model for life. "She is the one I look to when I'm down and need advice," she says, "She always has a smile on her face, whether she feels lousy or not. This inspires me to make the best out of each day and think positive."
By Olivia Branco, Dana Kinker and Emily Yahr, with Elizabeth Schumer