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The Spirit Of Giving For The Game Of Healing



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A collection of lacrosse equipment that had been spearheaded earlier this year by a local resident to benefit a youth group in lower Fairfield County is finally making its way toward its intended recipients.

Stephanie Barnes launched the collection of pre-owned equipment in March. The Newtown resident intended to have donations delivered to Bridgeport Youth Lacrosse (BYL) in time for the spring 2020 season. COVID-19 slowed those plans.

BYL is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a mission of increasing awareness and opportunity for youth living in the Park City.

Over time, the league has grown. It is now under the umbrella of Bridgeport Youth Lacrosse Sports Academy, which is a year-round after-school program that provides “academic intervention, behavioral support, mentoring, leadership training and sports instructions to over 250 student-athletes throughout Fairfield County,” according to its website.

According to its mission statement, one of BYL’s biggest goals is to “diminish the disparity between the quality of holistic sports programs available to Bridgeport’s urban youth and those offered to their suburban counterparts.”

In seeking to reduce that disparity, BYLSA founder Donald Wilson leads a year-round effort that raises approximately $145,000 to pay for coaches, facilities, and travel team expenses, among other costs, he said this week.

Those funds make it possible, he said, to offer the program nearly cost-free. Donations of equipment are equally critical for the Bridgeport program’s continuation.

This past Monday morning, Barnes and Wilson caught up at NYA Sports & Fitness Center with Ian Yorty, executive director of the sports and fitness center. The three loaded a van with the donated equipment collected in March.

While that collection was smaller than the one Barnes and Yorty had hoped to gather, both mentioned future outreach was more than a possibility.

More Than A Game

A former resident of the Black Rock section of Bridgeport, Barnes said the idea to collect for BYL began forming during the 2019 holiday season.

“I’ve been very fortunate, even as a single mother, when it comes to extracurriculars for my son — sports, soccer, camp, all that stuff,” she said. Her father, she said, has always helped cover the extra costs of equipment for teams Barnes’s son wanted to be involved with.

Juliano Barnes played lacrosse with Newtown Youth Lacrosse for a few seasons before switching to soccer. When he decided last year to return to lacrosse, Barnes chose to take on the cost of her son’s new equipment as a Christmas gift.

“I always knew that it was very expensive, but I hadn’t really felt it until I purchased all of his lacrosse equipment for the spring,” she said. Barnes spent between $500 and $600, she said.

That was when she began thinking about the Bridgeport youth group, “who had come into my view through living in Bridgeport,” she said. “It made me think about them, and how they raise a lot of money in order to give the kids who want to play lacrosse in Bridgeport the opportunity to, for free.”

Barnes is quick to point out that she is not blind to local families in need.

“I’m not taking an entire suburban town and saying everybody in this town can easily access this,” she stated. “There are people who struggle everywhere.”

Bridgeport Youth Lacrosse is for boys and girls ages 5 to 15. It launched in 2007 as its own entity, Wilson explained recently.

“Over the years we transformed and morphed into Bridgeport Youth Lacrosse Sports Academy as a way to engage more children here,” he said over the phone on July 19. “Lacrosse is a pretty unique sport, and not every child would want to play. But to give them the opportunity to play others sports, and engage with others, and receive positive feedback, that’s why the program was expanded.”

Within the academy, he said, BYLSA offers enrichment programs including yoga for children, mindfulness, and social and emotional learning (or SEL), among others.

Dedicated to benefitting the youth of Bridgeport, the organization’s founders recognized that the cost of registration and equipment for lacrosse can be significant.

“We strive to keep the costs as low as possible, and we do not want financial hardship to be in the way of an opportunity for children to be able to participate in the program,” according to the website’s FAQ page. Scholarships help cover some costs and come with a 10- to 15-hour commitment of volunteer time to BYL.

Donated and new equipment is also provided to players.

Donations, Williams said, “are really and truly the lifeblood of how we have been able to just deliver our programs to our youth here in Bridgeport.”

Most of the program’s equipment and funding comes from families and businesses in Fairfield County. Those donations cover what could be a $400- to $500-per-person fee to outfit each player with equipment and cover insurance, Wilson explained. Most parents in Bridgeport, he noted, work two or three jobs. They cannot afford an outlay of a few hundred dollars for sports.

Instead, each family is asked for a nominal fee.

“We try to collect $65 from families, to pay for insurance and registration through US Lacrosse,” he said. “It’s something we try to get from them, to invest in their child’s future.”

The program is not funded by the City of Bridgeport.

“We really depend on generous families, and private and corporate funding, to keep up with paying for our coaches, facilities, travel expenses, stuff that our youth really can’t afford at their level,” Wilson said.

“We do our best to get these resources, to deliver to the youth in Bridgeport and beyond,” he said, bringing up another important point: Bridgeport Youth Lacrosse Sports Academy is open to boys and girls across the county, not just the city in which it is based.

“Our academy has multiple sports, and is open and diverse, to attract everyone to come and play, not just for Bridgeport residents,” he said. “We really want to get folks from outside of Bridgeport to come in and play and really just give them a different perspective.

“Everyone can’t just be in their bubble and think the world is just in their little corner,” he added. “Diversion and inclusion is very important to us.”

Wilson sees lacrosse as more than a sport. He sees it as an exercise in healing, for one thing.

“It’s really a spiritual game, created for healing, and good sportsmanship, and good family atmosphere, and culture,” he said Sunday. While the sport is often seen as one that is played in the suburbs by the elite, “the true essence of the game is a medicine game,” he added.

Calling it The Creator’s Game, Wilson pointed out that lacrosse is a Native American sport. Many scholars have said that the game heals players through the physical exertions of running, throwing, and playing.

“It’s meant for healing,” he said. “When warriors played this game, the real healing came in the battle for the ball. When you fight for the ball, and you exert your energy, the more the Creator will smile on you.”

Wilson also fell in love with the game for its spiritual connections.

Teaching youth, he said, “to be more mindful, and to experience the healing, is especially what’s so needed in Bridgeport, with all the trauma and the violence.”

A Collection Launched

Yorty said last week he felt the collection for BYL was a perfect match for NYA after hearing about the nonprofit organization from Barnes.

“Once she shed more light on what they were about, it’s right along the lines of what we do,” he said. “NYA looks to connect the community through sports and wellness, and support youth sports in particular. So this was right up our alley.”

The timing was also advantageous.

“It was the time of year when there’s a lot of lacrosse activity coming through our doors,” Yorty added. “We thought it might be a good opportunity to catch some eyeballs and hopefully be able to help out this organization.”

Members of Newtown Newcomers & Neighbors, of which Barnes is a member, collected donations during two afternoons in early March.

NYA, according to Yorty, then kept the bins in place.

“We kept the bins out so people could drop off donations,” Yorty said last week. “We were planning on extending the collection, but unfortunately things got cut short.”

Like countless other things this year, the project was derailed by the arrival of the coronavirus across the region. Following one of the orders from Governor Ned Lamont that ordered most businesses to cease operations, NYA temporarily closed its doors. The donations — helmets, backpacks, sticks, etc — were put away until Monday, when Wilson drove to Newtown to pick up everything.

Barnes is aware, she said, of “kids in Bridgeport who have nothing, while many others have so much.

“It’s an unbelievable thing we take for granted here in the suburbs,” she said.

“The thing is,” she said last week, “when you get out of your own bubble, and if you were to go to Bridgeport and meet the team, and these people involved with this program, your life just opens up.

“It’s a different world, and a beautiful world, with beautiful people.”

Wilson is hoping the collection in Newtown will continue here and elsewhere, with a result wider beyond what will be seen on the lacrosse field.

“I believe what Bridgeport needs is a Newtown-style response to the violence here in this city,” he said. Wilson was referring to the kindness shown to Newtown since 12/14, and the positive effect it has had on many in the town.

“Our youth is really suffering from adverse child experiences,” he said. Taking kids away from that “could really change their lives,” he said. “These kids can succeed. Give them positive role models and resources.

“Taking them away from the negative impacts of their environments and communities can really be life changing for the youth in Bridgeport, and I see that being possible with support,” he added.

NYA’s executive director on Monday said he anticipates additional collections for Bridgeport Youth Lacrosse.

“We could make this a regular event,” Yorty said before he and Barnes helped load the donations into Wilson’s van. “This one was cut short, but we’ll continue to host collections. That, and next time local organizations need to update their equipment, hopefully they’ll remember this collection and come to us.”

For additional information about Bridgeport Youth Lacrosse Sports Academy, including donation and program opportunities, call 203-273-6084 or visit bridgeportyouthlacrosse.org.

NYA Sports & Fitness Center Executive Director Ian Yorty, left, holds a bin of lacrosse equipment while Donald Wilson, founder of Bridgeport Youth Lacrosse Sports Academy, loads another bin of donated equipment into his van on July 20. In the background is Stephanie Barnes, a Newtown resident who helped coordinate the collection of the used equipment. Residents were invited earlier this year to part with the gear, which will now benefit participants in Bridgeport Youth Lacrosse. —Bee Photos, Hicks
Stephanie Barnes, on the left, said the recent collection of used lacrosse equipment for Bridgeport Youth Lacrosse “is a starting point.” Within a small window, residents responded to a request and dropped off sticks, cleats, chest guards, backpacks, and helmets, she said. On July 20, Barnes met with BYO founder Donald Wilson, center, and NYA Executive Director Ian Yorty to get the first collection on its way to Bridgeport.
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