Issue Date: May 31, 2009
Most Caring Coach Winners
Keeping young riders on the right path.
Lezlie Hiner, Philadelphia
Polo isn't exactly a mainstream endeavor. But Lezlie Hiner, founder of the Work to Ride program at Chamounix Equestrian Center, uses this "sport of kings" to help Philadelphia at-risk youth stay in school. Hiner, 51, had the idea for Work to Ride after seeing the transforming effects that caring for horses had on one young man years ago. "I thought if this has such a profound effect, then maybe it could help other kids like him," she says.
...Congratulations to our three winners:
Bowling Green, Ky.
Read about them here
Hiner started in 1994 with four kids. Today, 20 riders, ages 7 to 19, are responsible for grooming and caring for their horses, and they also receive tutoring and mentoring. "They have to have at least a C average to participate in the program and compete," says René Simonini, the center's director of horsemanship.
Handling every aspect of Work to Ride became second nature to Hiner. Whether organizing activities, helping the kids with homework or even driving them home, Hiner did just about everything to keep the polo program afloat for years with a little help here and there. After 15 years, Hiner recently had to hire help. "It's still hard for Lezlie to relinquish some of the reins," Simonini jokes. "For years, she's been doing it all by herself. I don't know how she did it all, quite honestly."
Part of Hiner's work burden has been relieved by some of her former students, like Richard Prather. Now 29, Prather joined the program in 1997 when he was 13 years old. Work to Ride put the young man on a path toward success that he may not have seen otherwise. "I come from a very a poor environment in Philadelphia," says the recent New Mexico State University grad. "I'd been involved with several programs before Lezlie's, but it's really helped me get to where I wanted to be."
Since Prather's days, Work to Ride has changed a lot. "When I first joined, there were just four kids in the program, and there was no polo," says Prather, who also mentors current students. "Now those kids have a lot more than I did growing up. I have to remind them sometimes when they complain."
Hiner is both a nurturing and demanding coach. "She will push the kids a lot further than I will," says Simonini, who teaches the majority of the riding lessons. "It has really paid off, though, because they respond to her, and they excel. It always works out in their favor."
Stepping in with a hot meal, lending a helping hand to his football family
Frankie Carroll, Madison, Fla.
Coach Frankie Carroll, 51, is not just the championship-winning head football coach of the Madison County High School Cowboys. He is a father figure, tutor, college adviser, religious leader and community activist. "He works most not to win games, but to be first a leader and a father for this team," says Robert Sanders, who is going into his fourth year as a Cowboy. "He keeps us from going on the streets and doing something stupid."
When Carroll found out that many of his players were going home to dark houses and no dinners, he set up a program so churches and civic groups would feed the JV and varsity teams on Thursday and Friday game nights in the school's cafeteria. When a boy comes to practice without having had lunch, Carroll makes sure he gets him food, all on his dime. "It's nothing to see Coach Frankie have a truckload of boys, taking them to one of the local restaurants to make sure they get a hot meal before they go to bed," says nominator Lavonne Browning, a life-long friend. And when, several years ago, player Desmond Gee's mom died, Carroll and his wife, Dela, took in Gee for his senior year so he could continue as a Cowboy. Now he plays football for Middle Tennessee State, and the Carrolls traveled to watch his final game this past season.
Carroll even included a mentally handicapped student on his team after finding out that the boy's dream was to be a Cowboy. He worked through the student's foster family and child services to get him on the team, then held the teen to the same standards as the rest of the players. Carroll played him in the last three games of that season.
"He is the most open person and willing to give anyone a chance," says Robert Sanders, who was nearly sent to military school by his parents before joining the Cowboys. He turned around when Carroll got involved; now he is taking college placement tests.
Carroll goes to great lengths to make college an option for his players. Weekly tutoring sessions involve the whole team and coaching staff. Starting their sophomore year, players meet with Carroll to discuss scholarships and potential colleges. In his six years as head coach, he's had 50 students go off to college on scholarship.
"He can be hard on them because he knows the potential they've got," says nominator Kathleen Sanders. "When Frankie tells you he cares, he cares."
Carroll also encourages his team to visit the local middle and elementary school to read to students and to talk to them about their lives and good behavior. "That's something special, going and watching them with those little kids," Carroll says.
"The most rewarding part to me is to see these kids develop as young men, not football players - to know where they come from and see the young men they turn out to be," he says.
Encouraging boys to keep their eyes on ball and on what's important.
Danny Carothers, Bowling Green, Ky.
Danny Carothers, 48, has found concrete ways to support the 10- to-12-year old boys he coaches on the west side of Bowling Green, where youth football is more than an outlet. Many of Carothers' players have no male role model, and some come from homes where poverty, drugs and abuse are present.
"Carothers believes the anger and aggressiveness the players take out on the field begins at home," says nominator Elizabeth Lauer.
Off the field, the father of six treats the boys to outings like skating and high school football games, meals and hanging out at his house with his 12-year-old son. He invites community leaders - policemen, doctors, teachers and former players - to talk to his boys. "The older kids see they are important as role models, and the younger kids see what they can achieve," says Ron Whitlock. Carothers, Whitlock and and four other men also helped start West Side Camp, a summer enrichment program held on Whitlock's farm for boys on and off the team. "He wholeheartedly gives of himself," says team mom Judy Burnam. "It's him seeing a need and not wanting these kids to fall short and not fall into the wrong hands."
Carothers is a long-term figure in his players' lives. "Their motto is 'Once a Bear, always a Bear,' " says Roger LaPoint, whose son played for Carothers. "Danny's their surrogate father - they want to share their accomplishments with him - and he's there to support them."
"Danny was my role model as a kid," adds former Bear Jared Carpenter, now at Northwestern University. "He was the man who made the game fun. We played hard for him because you never knew when he would come get you and take you out for ice cream. When I grew up, he kept me confident, always complimenting me and always watching me play even though he wasn't coaching me. He became more of a mentor for me and one of my biggest fans."
More important, he keeps the boys active in their community. The Bears regularly visit residents at a local nursing home and distribute Thanksgiving turkeys to neighbors. One year, the boys met an old friend of Carothers who was raising her two grandchildren while battling cancer. With a little encouragement from their coach, the players brought that family a Christmas dinner and gifts, and some of the boys gave the family $5 of their own allowance.
Carothers has taken players in and has them over on weekends. And when a player needs anything - from a coat to a hot meal - the coach is there to provide it, either from his own pocket or gathered help from the community.
To Carothers, the wins on the field don't matter. His greatest joy comes from simply being with his young men. "I get to interact with these kids - it gives me a chance to be very close to them," Carothers says. "It's all about knowing that you've got them around you for a couple of hours every week."
Most Caring Coach Finalists
Mentoring students to be athletes and scholars
Jaime & Greg Cooper, Severna Park, Md.
When eighth-grade math teacher Jaime Cooper saw that her students lacked motivation to perform well academically and behaviorally, she approached principal Diane Bragdon about creating an after-school basketball incentive program. Drawing on her years as a player, Cooper started a "Hoops and Homework" club in 2006 at Wiley H. Bates Middle School in
Annapolis, Md. Students with at least a 2.0 GPA and a clean behavioral record can participate. Jaime and her husband, Greg, both 29, volunteer their afternoons to coach the coed team of eligible students.
The Coopers approached local businesses to sponsor the team and to purchase uniforms, which have been a huge motivator to performing well in school, Bragdon says. "It is a big deal around here. It has changed the way the kids carry themselves. They're proud to be part of a team," says Bragdon, who characterizes the change in students' academic performances as nothing short of "grass-roots magic." Jaime convinced a neighboring middle school to adopt a "Hoops and Homework" program; now the two schools play a series of three games together each season.
Greg and Jaime Cooper have been coaching youth basketball since they were both captains of their Salisbury University basketball teams. Jordan Duhe, now a 20-year-old Guilford College student, had Jaime as a Salisbury basketball camp counselor. "I was an annoying 10-year-old that looked up to her, and she kind of took me under her wing," Duhe says. Even after camp was over, Jaime mentored Duhe, taking her to the gym when most other college students never would have the time or interest. "As a college student now, I couldn't imagine taking some 10-year-old to the gym and teaching her how to play basketball," Duhe says. "Even more so now, I appreciate that the Coopers didn't treat me like a 10-year-old.
They treated me more like a friend."
The Coopers also mentored Latavia Dempsey, a quiet seventh-grade athlete whom Jaime coached when the couple lived in Florida. Last summer, the couple paid for Dempsey to fly to Maryland to attend a University of Maryland basketball camp so she would could show off her skills for college recruiters. Several universities have shown interest, including North Carolina State University and Baylor University. "Jaime helped me open the doors to see my talents and know that I can compete against anybody," Dempsey says.
In his nominating letter, Tod Mack, Greg's stepfather, wrote: "They are a remarkable couple who have unselfishly put their love for basketball to work for their community."
Teaching life skills through rugby
Roger Evans and Marcus Wood, Washington, D.C.
"Inner-city kids" and "rugby" aren't words you'd expect to hear together. Nor would you expect kids from homeless shelters to be on the same team as the children of embassy staff. But that's exactly what Roger Evans, 42, and Marcus Wood, 34, who have played club rugby together for years, organized every week with the Washington Warriors rugby team.
While doing some community outreach in the Northeast D.C. community - painting rooms in homeless shelters, doing a clothing drive for inner-city kids and battered women - the rugby players saw a need. In 2004, Evans and Brian Mihelic, who nominated Evans and Wood, started the Washington Warriors. Wood signed on in 2006.
The program is free, and players are not required to attend practices, but they can only participate in games if they do. They return again and again because of enjoyment - and often bring new friends along. Originally an under-15 (aka U-15) team, today the program includes U-11, U-13, U-15 and U-19. "One thing with kids in the inner city is they don't think outside the box - they only know around their block," Mihelic says. "Just meeting kids outside your little circle is great."
Some might say that rugby is too violent for young kids, but the coaches believe it is a sport that can teach life lessons to kids who really need it. "It's teaching kids decision-making - and decision-making under pressure," Mihelic says. "These kids make those kinds of decisions - and risking their lives - every day."
Wood, who grew up in Northeast D.C., has been able to recruit a lot more players since joining the program. "They tend to look up to him as someone who is one of them," says Kevin Tifft, a fan of the team. "He can be a little more rough with the kids because they'll listen." If Wood is the enforcer, then the United Kingdom-born Evans is the "mother" of the team. The kids love his accent, which entertains them and inspires lots of questions. "It's nice when they come to you for help and ask you questions," Evans says. "I feel like I'm helping them as a mentor."
Off the field, the coaches' dedication is endless. Both pick up players for practice and games, recruit kids from shelters and take players out to dinner, all out of their own pocket. Although the team has worked off grants and donations, the money supply sometimes runs dry. Recently, they've even had problems securing a field because a city councilman turned their old practice field into a baseball-only park. Luckily, the coaches quickly found a new practice field at a local high school.
"You couldn't ask for nicer people who are passionate and willing to give up their time and show the sport to the boys with great enthusiasm," says Kate Kansiz, who has a son on the team. "These guys just give their all."
Giving confidence to kids with disabilities via sled hockey
Mike Fenster, Columbus, Ohio
Children with disabilities face hardships that most able-bodied kids couldn't ever fathom. So the chance to be like everyone else - to move freely and really be competitive - is something that the kids on Mike Fenster's sled hockey team don't take for granted.
Six years ago, Fenster showed up at an Ohio Blades game with his then 3-year-old, Michael Jr., to check out the sport. The former soccer player has been involved with the small 10-man sled hockey team ever since. During his two years as assistant coach, Fenster, 39, took classes at Ohio State University to learn to skate and play the game before taking a position as the head coach. "He has really worked to groom himself into someone who is a coach," says nominator Andrew Mollica, co-founder of the team. "He came in as a volunteer and got his hands dirty right away with just helping. He's a self-made coach."
"Get ready to play ... our way," is a motto constantly heard on Fenster's team, and it's one that pushes his team to be the best it can be, on and off the ice.
"These kids look up to Mike, and they've really given me a different perspective on sports," says hockey mom Karrianne Davis-Mumper. Her 14-year-old son, Samuel, was a soccer player before being diagnosed with Perthes disease, a hip disorder. "Mike has given him the reassurance as well as the commitment. [Samuel] didn't play hockey before, but Mike taught him the game."
After nearly six years on the team, Samuel has become more confident and comfortable in his own skin. "Before I started playing, I didn't really understand," he says. "I thought people in wheelchairs were weird, but they're all really cool, and they're my friends."
More than anything, Fenster is very involved in the lives of all his players. "Just watching Mike with the kids, you think, 'My child is getting all this wonderful one-on-one attention,' but he's that way with every single child," parent Patty Dovell says. "He's so interested in them, and he has so much enthusiasm." Dovell's son Brad, 17, loves being on a team that he can actually play on. "It's nice to be competitive in something finally," he says.
Creating opportunities for sports-minded students
Jaime Gonzalez, Edinburg, Texas
Harvest Christian Academy's athletics program is a bit of a David-and-Goliath story. Although the tiny Texas school only has about 50 high school students and lacks a gymnasium, physical education teacher and coach Jaime Gonzalez has created a program - basketball, football and a community soccer program - that confounds the most doubtful of critics. The boys and girls basketball teams make local headlines, winning games against schools with more than 2,000 students. The football team, in its first year at the high school level, had so few players that everyone had to play both offense and defense. The community soccer league he created four years ago now boasts more than 500 kids participating on the school's grounds.
It is through Gonzalez's dedication to his values and his players that the athletics program has been so successful, says nominator Amy Quintanilla, an English teacher at the private school. Before coming to the school nine years ago, Gonzalez was pursuing a degree in business while working at a car dealership. But when he saw a need for a coach at the school, he says he looked to God and decided a career change was the right thing. "I grew up playing sports, but I never dreamed I'd be a coach," Gonzalez says. "I fell in love with the kids."
Gonzalez, 30, has coached many of the same players for six or more years. Darren Balentina, now 18, was in the sixth grade when he tried basketball for the first time. "I told [Gonzalez] that I wasn't good at it, that it wasn't for me. But he told me, 'Don't give up - go for the top.' " With Gonzalez's coaching, Balentina soon became a star player on the boys team and has been offered a full scholarship to Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo. "He taught me how to believe in myself before a game," Balentina says. "Now I thank him for everything."
The boys basketball team recently had quite a season. Competing in a Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools league, the Eagles beat all the schools in their district and made it to the "elite eight" before losing a tough game by only six points. Next year, Gonzalez has high hopes that the team will make it to the final four and beyond. The girls basketball team also had a great season, with a 23-7 record.
Using a combination of parent donations, fundraising and money from his own pocket, Gonzalez makes sure his athletes have the best equipment and environment in which to play. When a group of the school's junior-high students asked about creating a tackle football team, Gonzalez gave them his word that he would make it happen, despite the high costs. Now those students are in their first year of high school, and the team has reached a junior varsity status for the first time. Although they only had a team of 12 players, facing schools with more than 35 players, the team had a blast. "We teach the kids there is no impossibility," Gonzalez says. "We are defying the odds."
Providing support during tough times
Willis Hothouse, Stilwell, Okla.
One year ago, tragedy struck the Stilwell Crushers softball team when a teammate, Lacey Jo "Loo" Burns, passed away. While Lacey was in the hospital, her coach, Willis Hothouse, 41, had stayed by her side and brought the rest of his team to support their left-handed shortstop. "He always told Lacey to 'dig deep and get well' every time he visited her in the hospital," says nominator Kelsey Leach, who has played with Hothouse for almost 10 years. Afterward, he was the backbone for a group of preteen girls who had lost a close friend.
"If they need anything, he's the first one there," says Kay Leach, Kelsey's mom. "If they wanted to cry about it, he was there and cried with them. If they wanted to laugh and tell a story about her, he was right there to laugh with them."
The Burns family, along with New Life Church, set up a scholarship fund for graduating seniors in Stilwell to honor their daughter. Hothouse walked 42 laps in a fundraiser, Laps for Lacey, benefiting the scholarship. "He walked all 42 to represent the 42 days she was in the hospital," says Leisa Jo Simmons, Lacey's mom. "He said: 'Loo never let me down. I won't let her down.' "
Hothouse also set up the Got DIRT tournament in Lacey's honor, using the team motto, "Determination, Integrity, Respect and Teamwork." Teams from other towns competed in the all-volunteer tournament, which raised $5,000 for the scholarship program. Now, the Got DIRT tournament will be a yearly event held to remember their friend and teammate.
But helping a team and community through a tragedy isn't the only contribution Hothouse has made to his close-knit group of players. Among other things, Hothouse "finally got softball in our little town," Kay Leach says. When his own daughters outgrew coach-pitch ball six years ago, he decided to start a softball league with 12 girls in three age groups all on the same team. Now the league has nine teams.
His team, the Crushers, has become a family: Girls are always visiting the Hothouses' home for sleepovers with the Hothouse daughters or just to hang out. The coach attends their birthday and Halloween parties. He drives them to and from games, tournaments and practices. In the off-season, he attends their other sports events. He does all this while working 10- to 12-hour night shifts as a supervisor for a food production plant.
"They may not be the best athletes in the county, but they're the ones that work together," says Hothouse, who took a team of girls who could barely throw a ball to a team that wins championships. "That's the DIRT deal, something that I hope sticks to them until they're 30 years old."
"He has always felt that it's the teamwork," says his wife, Tammy. "If a kid doesn't have a whole lot of ability but they have the 'want-to,' that's the kind of kid he'll pick. And he doesn't really pick them - they just fit in. Our girls are so close. That's the biggest joy he gets out of it."
Jumping at the chance to mentor young girls
Lynn Kelley, Maineville, Ohio
Fifteen years ago, physical education teacher Lynn Kelley, now 56, was searching for a way to provide arts programs to her students. "I was teaching in a lower socioeconomic school, and a lot of our children didn't have the advantage of [outside] dance and music programs," Kelley says. "I knew that kids loved to perform, so I started putting together a big physical education show. Eventually we formed a jump-rope group of girls, and it just grew from there."
Today, the 28 members of the Firecrackers Jump Rope Team work their hardest to perfect each performance. The girls, in grades four through eight, practice six days a week for almost two hours per day, repeating routines endlessly, though the girls rarely complain. "Ms. Kelley's famous line is 'one more time,' " says parent and volunteer Jennifer Nenna. "Lynn is very encouraging and patient with the girls, and that's amazing to me." That practice pays off: The Firecrackers have performed at events from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade to appearances at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Year after year, girls try out, whether they've been on the team or not, and each year the tryouts get harder. Kelley also works with team members closely to shape them into respectful young ladies, from holding them accountable for their success to providing a mandatory etiquette course. And because community service is a large part of Kelley's life, she extends that interest to her team. "She's always doing something," Firecrackers parent Eddie Young says. "She puts in the hours to do the choreography and the coaching, and when she's not doing that, she's delivering food, coats ... anything people need, really."
The Firecrackers' biggest community project is a Christmas gift drive, where the jump-ropers donate and wrap gifts, which Kelley delivers herself. "I think for a lot of these girls, this is their first exposure to community work," Nenna says. "Kids can be so inwardly focused unless they are introduced to [community service]."
The standards that Kelley sets for her girls is evident on more than just the court when they're performing amazing feats with jump-ropes. "Without Firecrackers, I might have half the confidence level that I do now," says 13-year-old Alyssa Young, who is in her fourth year on the team. "I feel like I've grown a lot."
Building self-esteem and strength in people with disabilities
Trisha Yurochko, Mountainside, N.J.
When Trisha Yurochko sees a child in a wheelchair or one with cerebral palsy, she doesn't see a child who needs constant babying. Instead, she sees a potentially strong and confident athlete. Yurochko, 60, is the head coach of Children's Lightning Wheels, a sports program for people with disabilities sponsored by Children's Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, N.J.
For 12 years, she has been training kids with physical disabilities to not only compete in track and field, swimming, table tennis, archery and weight lifting, but also to teach them the self-confidence they need to live an active, independent life.
The team, which has about 27 athletes ages 9 to 21, with different disabilities, competes in local invitational, regional and national athletic events every year, with some athletes reaching the international arena.
Children's Specialized Hospital has supported the program since its inception in 1981. Amy Mansue, the hospital's CEO, says the program does so much good for children that, for some, it has become a part of inpatient/outpatient therapy. It not only builds on athleticism and strength, Mansue says, but it also does wonders for kids' sociability and self-confidence. Mansue credits Yurochko, who is also the hospital's marketing coordinator, for the program's many success stories. "She finds their athletic prowess in ways that's almost inconceivable."
Yurochko coaches with a focus on the individual athlete and his or her strengths. "We look at their abilities. We don't look at their disabilities," she says. Phil Galli, an assistant coach and parent of a former athlete in the program, says Yurochko exposes new athletes to multiple sports to find out what they can do and then pushes the kids to be the best they can be. "She knows their strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes," Galli says. Yurochko encourages her athletes to set personal goals and urges sometimes overprotective parents to embrace their child's new abilities and experiences. Ultimately, the program provides a support group for both the athletes and their parents.
Galli perhaps knows better than anyone just how rewarding the program can be for an athlete and his or her family. At age 7, his daughter, Jessica, suffered a serious spinal cord injury in a car accident. After four months in the hospital, she was introduced to Children's Lightning Wheels and began competing at age 9 in track and field, swimming, basketball and table tennis. Jessica competed until she graduated from the program nine years later. Now a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Jessica has competed in the Paralympics in Sydney, Athens and, most recently, Beijing, where she became the competition's most decorated track and field athlete, winning five medals. Today, she and Yurochko still have a close friendship.
"In the end, [Yurochko] wants to make sure everyone is having fun and doing things to the best of their ability, whatever that may be," Jessica Galli says. "We always joke: Winning medals is good, but it's more about having a positive experience."