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High school athletes band together to give back

As the 2019-20 school year hits its stride, student-athletes around Western New York have more than winning championships on their minds. Thoughts of giving back to their communities are also on their to-do lists.

“(Coach Brian Baker) always brings up that there’s a bigger world out there besides Wilson,” said Megan Musall, a junior on the Wilson High School girls varsity basketball team. “We go to Wilson and it’s this tiny, small community. Its giving back to the people that have raised you. We’ve grown up with the (motto) it takes a community to raise these kids in Wilson. He said it’s about giving back and recognizing that there are more people (in the community) than just us and our friends.”

From food drives to tree decorating at Oishei Children’s Hospital, Musall said the charitable efforts of the Wilson girls and boys basketball teams show that you don’t have to have a full pocketbook to make a difference. Just a full heart.

The holiday season reinvigorates the giving side in all of us and high school athletes are among the most passionate to answer the call to help their neighbors.

High school athletes band together to give back | Buffalo Magazine

St. Susan Center in Jamestown got help with their lunch service from Southwestern's varsity football team earlier this season.

Over the years, West Seneca West’s girls basketball coach Ashley Bonetto has arranged for her team to do a Breakfast with Santa at the West Seneca Senior Center and volunteer at the Buffalo City Mission. Bonetto has also helped organize WSW volleyball and softball team trips to the West Seneca Senior Center for bingo night. Meanwhile, the West Seneca West boys hockey team spent the last two seasons doing holiday shopping trips for needy families—an event they had a hand in creating.

The girls hockey team at Nichols School has a longstanding tradition of taking part in holiday shopping night at St. Luke’s in Buffalo. Ciara Barone, class of 2018, said those moments had a profound effect on her. Each girl is given a shopping list for a few kids with specific items to find. Barone said this approach attaches a face to what they are doing and makes it more personal.

“You just feel so good,” Barone said. “It’s refreshing to know that you’re doing something that’s not for yourself.”

Caring can also be the simplest of gestures—like baking cookies. In the past, the Niagara Wheatfield boys hockey team sent their holiday well wishes oversees with a Cookies for the Troops event where they baked treats for military people stationed abroad. Noah Wrazin, a member of the Niagara Wheatfield class of 2017, was a junior on the first Falcon team that baked cookies. Now in the Marine Reserves, Wrazin knows how much a simple gesture like cookies can make a soldier’s day.

“I can speak from personal experience,” he said. “Around the holidays, being in the military, being away from your family—it doesn’t go unnoticed. Just to know that someone is out there thinking about you.”

But the giving extends far beyond the holiday season—it’s become a year-round commitment by coaches and kids.

High school athletes band together to give back | Buffalo Magazine

The Kenmore West girls basketball team spent time volunteering at St. Francis Soup Kitchen at Assumption Church in Buffalo.

The varsity football season had barely begun when Southwestern's former head coach Jehuu Caulcrick gathered his Trojans for an afternoon of volunteering at the St. Susan Soup Kitchen in Jamestown, serving lunch to those in need.

Visiting the St. Francis Soup Kitchen at Assumption Church on Amherst St. in Buffalo has quickly become the highlight of the school year for the Kenmore West girls basketball program. The visits are orchestrated by Lady Blue Devil assistant coach Paul Catalano, who has been volunteering there for years. Catalano proposed the idea to head coach Jeff Martin with the sentiment that since the seniors needed to do a community service project, why not include all the grades and make it a bonding experience.

“We proposed it to the girls. They thought it would be a great idea,” Catalano said. “A few of them said ‘I’ve always wanted to do something like that’ and they didn’t have an avenue to do it.”
Catalano’s idea gave the girls team more than an avenue—but also an important life lesson about helping others when you can, as well as respect. Catalano makes a point of calling the people who attend lunch at St. Francis their "guests.” It helps remove stigmas and perfectly illustrates to the girls that anyone can fall on hard times. And that needing a helping hand now and then is nothing to be ashamed of.

“I felt really happy just knowing that, for at least that day, maybe it will make their day and mine. To realize we made them feel better,” said Ken-West junior Alexa Padilla. “As a team, we all felt like we were doing better in our community. Talking to them and seeing them happy. When they came in, they weren’t saying anything, and they weren’t happy. When we got to talk to them, they smiled just like we did.”

Padilla said the simplest interaction of “How was your day?” to “Did you enjoy lunch?” were met with smiles because the guests could tell that the Lady Blue Devils genuinely cared. She also said that the time spent at St. Francis truly puts life into perspective: How, prior to the visit, most kids think losing a basketball game or having their phone taken away is the end of the world. And how their worries pale in comparison to real hardships.

“Kids don’t get enough credit these days. Everybody always shorts them,” Catalano said. “You give a kid a chance, that’s all they want.”

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