Last spring the Heilman Dining Center had a first: an impromptu middle school dance party.

Once every season, the girls from the Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School (AJCES) lacrosse team come to campus to practice with the Richmond women’s lacrosse team. Practice is followed by a meal in the dining hall and sometimes, a dance party.

Women’s lacrosse — as well as the swim and dive and baseball team and a couple non-D1 athletes — uses its athletic talents to give back to the community.

Matt Barany, the head coach of the women’s swim and dive team, initiated a partnership with Youth Life several years ago. Youth Life Foundation runs neighborhood-based after-school and summer programs in the Richmond metro area with the mission of helping children rise above their circumstances.

Once a month, students from the four Youth Life centers come to the university, where they work with the Division I swimmers to develop their skills. The afternoon at Richmond is part of their “fun Friday,” which the students have to earn as a reward for good behavior.

Leahna Sullivan is the program director at Youth Life’s Highland Park Learning Center. Sullivan remembers one of her students who refused to get in the water for the first three or four sessions out of fear of the pool. Sullivan said the swimmer worked patiently with the young girl, rather than giving up or growing frustrated.

“That child is in the fifth grade now and she swims like a fish,” Sullivan said.

Hannah Matheson, senior and captain of the swim team, said she felt lucky to have the opportunity to volunteer through the team.

“I love kids, I love teaching lessons, I love how excited they get,” Matheson said. “Even if they forget who I am personally, they are going to remember this experience. I am glad that I can be a part of something that I give back with my team.”

Teaching swim skills and drowning prevention are important, Sullivan said, but the real intention of the program is exposure.

“From our perspective, we want our kids to be exposed to opportunities that they would not normally be exposed to,” she said. “Just to come onto the University of Richmond campus…opens the kids’ eyes.”

Megan Wing, a senior, is a Youth Life leader at Hermitage High School and wanted to get more involved in the school community. Having played soccer in high school and knowing some of the girls on the team, she decided to become the assistant women’s varsity soccer coach in the spring of 2014.

During the spring season, Wing volunteers about 10 hours a week coaching at practices and games. According to Wing, there are some commitment issues with the girls on the team, which she fights by doing her best to keep morale high. She encourages players to value the game regardless of wins or losses.

Wing says that the most motivating part of coaching has been watching the girls improve not only their athletic ability, but also their attitudes.

“It has been encouraging to see the girls get better as the season progresses,” she said.

Wing will join the Teach For America Corps in Oklahoma next year and plans on applying lessons she’s learned coaching to the classroom.

“I’ve had to establish respect from [players] and remain patient when they don’t show up,” Wing said. “I don’t let their lack of commitment affect my coaching.”

The women’s lacrosse program is much shorter. The lacrosse team spends one day a year with girls from the AJCES lacrosse team. AJCES provides full-tuition scholarships to students of limited economic resources.

Two-thirds of AJCES students are from surrounding housing projects, including Creigton Court, Fairfield Court, Whitcomb Court and Mosby Court. The lacrosse team initiated the program with the help of US Lacrosse, which provided a grant that enabled the team to buy equipment for the girls.

According to Mary Simpson, the lacrosse coach at AJCES, the day with the lacrosse team is an outstanding opportunity for exposure.

“It is a time for the girls not only to be on a college campus, which is important for our kids to see, but also just to meet an empowering group of women,” Simpson said.

Simpson said that it was inspiring for the girls to spend time with a group of women who balance academics and athletics and to see the girls working as a team.

“I think it is really important for our girls to learn how to be a part of something bigger than themselves and, honestly, that girls can be athletes too,” she said.

Simpson said that the Richmond coaches did an excellent job of preparing for the day. They talk with Simpson and try to get to know what the AJCES girls are like before they arrive. They learn their names and try to match personalities of girls from AJCES with girls on the Richmond team.

Though Simpson wishes that the teams could meet more than once a season, she is grateful for the effect that the Richmond lacrosse players have had on her students. Some of the AJCES girls are so influenced by the Richmond players that they remember their names even a year after working with them.

“They really, really look forward to it,” Simpson said.

Contact contributor Maddie Wittich at maddie.wittich@richmond.edu

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