Lessons of sports mentorship program reach beyond the field
“Awesome” is how Lisa Wilmer, the principal of B.B. Comegys Elementary School, describes the Young Quakers Community Athletics program.
In 2012, Comegys had no sports programming. When University of Pennsylvania lacrosse coach Mike Murphy wanted his team to be more involved with service, a partnership formed between Comegys and Penn.
Young Quakers is an afterschool initiative that pairs Penn varsity players with school-aged athletes at three West Philadelphia K-8 schools.
Comegys served as a pilot for the Young Quakers program.
Wilmer noted that interest was slow at first among the children, but after a few curious students took the leap, many followed. And soon after the boys started playing lacrosse, the girls wanted to join in, too.
Now the program includes track and field and has expanded to Samuel B. Huey and Henry C. Lea Schools. More than 100 children and more than 100 Penn varsity athletes are involved.
Young Quakers is a new component of the University-Assisted Community Schools program. It’s a joint operation between Penn’s Netter Center and the Division of Recreation and Intercollegiate Athletics. The two fundraise for the program, along with help from individual donors.
The program, which operates once a week throughout the school year, provides mentoring partnerships, uniforms, coaches, equipment, and transportation for the students.
A typical session begins with exercises in leadership and time for the students and the Penn athletes to engage in a personal exchange. The students spend the rest of their time doing drills and practicing for upcoming competitions with other schools.
“It’s mentoring on both sides — mentoring for the K-8 elementary students and a growth opportunity for the Penn athletes,” said program director Jennifer Chu.
Mentor and lacrosse player Iris Williamson stresses that the constant competition of playing a Division 1 sport “takes a toll on your love for the game." But, she said, "When you can pick up a lacrosse stick with a girl who has never played before, it puts it in perspective. They just want to play.”
For the students, the impact of the program extends beyond the field. Wilmer says that it “builds camaraderie in the classroom.”
The expectation for students is high. Students will monitor each other’s behavior, telling peers how to act. They know that their performance in the classroom affects their eligibility on the field.
Team accountability has not only evolved at Comegys, it has occurred on the Penn teams as well. Mentor and track-and-field runner Gabrielle Cuccia said the program has increased the accountability on the team, allowing teammates to see each other differently beyond the track.
Though there are similar community athletic partnerships at other universities, Chu says, “the biggest difference is that Division 1 athletes take time out of their practices during the week and schedule their practice around Young Quakers. They do it as a team.”
Cuccia says a program like this is necessary. "These kids have the tools to succeed and we’re there just to guide them.”
One telling benefit of the program is that it has fostered a college-going culture. Wilmer said that it is common to hear program participants say, “I’m going to Penn when I go to college.”
Athletics may be the driving force behind this program, but Wilmer said it goes beyond the sports.
“They go off campus to an Ivy League school. They get exposed to a college," she said. "They see the possibilities just being exposed.”
Camden Copeland is an intern at the Notebook.