Success with Honor: Penn State Basketball Players Give Back to the Community
Aug. 26, 2008
By Courtney Agnew, Penn State Athletic Communications Student Assistant
Many athletes will tell you that they always had a certain sports figure they admired and looked up to as a child. Some athletes are lucky enough to become one of those sports figures for another child. Six Penn State basketball players may now be in that very position.
On August 9, Zhaque Gray, Emily Phillips, Renee Womack, Danny Morrissey, Drew Jones and Jeff Brooks attended the Northwestern Human Services (NHS) Sixth Annual Therapeutic Foster Care Conference at Juniata College. The athletes served as motivational speakers and role models for the hundreds of high school-aged foster children and foster parents in attendance. According to Al Vitelli, who works for NHS as the Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President and arranged for the players to speak, the kids were inspired by the Penn State student-athletes.
"They were on the edge of their seats," Vitelli said. "I have never in my life seen so much attention being paid, and for the entire time they were in the room."
Vitelli contacted Nate Althouse, who works with the Varsity "S" Club at the Bryce Jordan Center, to inquire if he could get Penn State athletes to appear at the conference. The two talked about what the kids needed and decided that student-athletes would provide great role models for the kids.
"What's great about sports is that there's a lot of universal application to the lessons learned," Althouse said. "For example, Emily is not very tall so she talked about how she was too small to play with the `big girls'. A lot of the kids haven't been exposed to adults who have really emphasized that they believe in them so having the athletes talking about their experiences really helps the kids."
Althouse prepared a PowerPoint presentation to acknowledge things the kids may have endured during their lives in foster care. The theme of the presentation was "Bring It," meaning the kids needed to bring the right perspective and attitude to their everyday life.
Althouse then played game clips and showed interviews with the players. In the interviews, the athletes discussed the importance of hard work and focus. Morrissey also discussed how he remained positive after losing a season as a result of a knee injury. He told the kids that he chose to focus on rehabilitating his knee and becoming a stronger athlete and person. Jones tried to impress the value of hard work on the kids.
"We've had to go through some tough times on the court and you've had to go through some tough things in life," Jones said. "Stuff happened to our team that no one deserved, and I know things have probably happened in your life to you that nobody should have to go through. I just know that all the hard work we put in will pay off."
Phillips discussed the importance of other people who can inspire and make a difference in the kids' lives. She pointed out the impact that Coquese Washington, the women's basketball head coach, has had on her.
"She is someone who made me feel like I could be better on the court and in life, and that inspired me to come to Penn State," Phillips told the kids
Althouse passed out photos of the athletes to the kids and asked them to write down what they thought of everything the players said and what it meant to them.
"Our athletes were tremendous," Althouse said. "They represented Penn State very well. I'm not sure they realized what kind of an impact they have on the kids but they were fantastic. They did a good job and really wanted to embrace the opportunity."
Althouse said the athletes' goal was to help the kids see the importance of getting a high school education and to work hard at everything they do in life.
"These kids haven't necessarily been encouraged or told that they can be whatever they want," Althouse said. "Some of them are just struggling to finish high school so for them it's going to be a large task."
The NHS is a non-profit, community-based organization composed of many grassroots agencies and serves over 50,000 people throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina and Louisiana. It has been in operation for 40 years and offers services in the areas of juvenile justice, elder care, addictive diseases and intellectual and developmental disabilities, in addition to their work with foster care.
The conference at Juniata aimed to provide ongoing training for foster parents and to take the opportunity to provide enrichment to the children and give them something to think about regarding their education. The program also helps the kids to focus on their opportunities and to think positively about them.
"It's specifically geared towards having the children think about their futures and consider options that might be available to them," Vitelli said.
Following the players' appearance, Vitelli wrote letters to Ed DeChellis and Coquese Washington, the men's and women's basketball coaches, respectively. In his letters, Vitelli wrote, "I have never witnessed an audience so engaged by a presentation that was so genuine in its intended purpose. The impact that these athletes had on the lives of these young people can not be measured."
When these athletes are performing on the hardwood of the Bryce Jordan Center, they can make the most difficult feats seem simple and easy. When they use their status as college athletes to make a difference in kids' lives, they show us how easy it is for everyone to do the same.