Lacrosse program helps aboriginal youth

Heather Latter

Aboriginal youth at the Ge-Da-Gi-Binez Youth Centre here participated in a Lacrosse for Development Program last week to help them develop life skills, leadership, and goal-setting.
Offered through a partnership between Ontario’s Ministry of Children and Youth Services, Right to Play, and the National Lacrosse League, the one-week program helps youth in conflict with the law better re-integrate into their home communities.
“This is to provide them with some leadership skills, some communication skills, and, through the positive role models, some basic lacrosse skills,” said Zoltan Kovacs, MCYS Probation Manager and lead for this initiative.
“Because lacrosse is an aboriginal sport, it’s their sport,” he noted. “And we’re giving them a chance to learn the game.”
Through the partnership, the program brought in three professional lacrosse players—Chris McElroy of the Washington Stealth, Andrew McBride of the Calgary Roughnecks, and Creighton Reid of the Colorado Mammoth—as well as Allan Downey, a member of B.C.’s Nak’azdli First Nation and a Ph.D. candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, who currently is writing his thesis on the history of lacrosse in First Nations’ communities.
This group has worked together before, hosting the same Lacrosse for Development Program at Ronald Lester Youth Centre in Thunder Bay last September.
The ministry also partnered with Right To Play to host a Hockey for Development Program in Thunder Bay back in February.
“We all have the same vision,” Kovacs remarked. “We want kids to succeed and we want to provide kids with the tools to succeed.
“The ministry is looking at this as a progressive approach to work with youth justice kids in this facility,” he added.
Kovacs said the program ran all last week, beginning with an opening prayer and ceremony Monday evening and working with the youth throughout the day for the next three days.
Then on Friday, they held a final lacrosse game between the players and the youth to demonstrate all the skills they had developed through the program, which was followed by a closing ceremony.
“When we found that the partnership existed between Right To Play and the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, we wanted to be part of it because we recognized that Right To Play is an international organization, a very credible organization, that has worked in many communities with millions of young people around the world,” noted Garth Donald, facility administrator at Ge-Da-Gi-Binez.
“And it’s a real honour to have that organization be part of our program,” he added.
McElroy said the lacrosse players were involved in teaching the skills of the game, but also the leadership training.
“One thing we’ve tried to do is encompass the seven values that they use here at the facility into our teaching,” he explained, noting prior to each skill development session, Downey spoke about the historical significance of the game.
“Lacrosse is an aboriginal game from across North America, so what we see here is we have the ministry and Right To Play coming together to help re-empower indigenous youth through their own culture and through their own history,” noted Downey.
“Some of them might not have had that history passed down to them or it’s been lost a little bit in the communities,” he reasoned.
“But what you see by reintroducing an aboriginal game, an aboriginal cultural element, is we really are trying to give back that knowledge and give back that history to these indigenous youth.”
Downey said the program tries to provide the youth with a cultural knowledge and understanding that can re-empower them to make better decisions and positive lifestyle changes in the future.
“When you have the NLL players here, they are touchable heroes to these kids,” he stressed.
“They are so close, you can almost reach out and touch them. You can play beside them.
“What I’m starting to see through this experience is a lot of these youth have missed their actual childhood,” Downey indicated.
“They missed opportunities to just be kids and, I think, when you go out on a lacrosse field and you see them pick up a stick and start playing, they can recapture that.
“And I think that’s important for those positive lifestyle changes to have those experience of being a kid, dropping your worries, picking up a lacrosse stick, and just having fun,” he added.
“Seeing them smile, and seeing them come out of their shell and really grow in confidence.”
But it’s not just the youth at the facility who are impacted by participating in the program.
“We look at the impact it has on the kids, but it’s amazing the impact it has on these guys as professional athletes,” Kovacs said. “It’s amazing what these kids do to them.
“It humbles them,” he noted. “It brings them back down to Earth.”
“As much as we are here to teach, we are also here to learn from one another,” McElroy agreed. “And we’re very respectful of that and grateful to have the opportunity.
“I came away from [the program in Thunder Bay] with a stronger appreciation for the game and for its potential,” he added, noting it was great for everyone to come together and collectively share a common goal.
“I grew probably as much as the youth last year and this experience is similar,” McElroy said.
“I think only a few lucky people get to see the impact of their lives on other people,” Downey said. “So it’s incredible for me for my research to have an impact on youth and see the influence of that.
“Or the NLL players, that their playing careers and being good at a sport can really have an impact on people.
“But the really amazing thing is the reverse role,” he continued. “It’s an honour to sit in front of these kids and learn from them.
“You can see the struggles that they go through in their every-day actions and reactions to the things they are doing.
“And it really, really pushes you as a person and to grow as a person,” Downey stressed.
“I think I’ve learned more from these kids than I’ve given them,” he said. “It’s been an incredible experience that way.”
Since lacrosse is such a powerful teaching tool, especially with its cultural background, why is it not being played locally on a regular basis?
“In Northern Ontario, we’ve seen lacrosse come and go over the years from the 1870s all the way up,” Downey explained.
“It goes kind of like a roller-coaster ride in popularity,” he noted. “What we’re seeing right now is the very beginning of a revival—the re-empowering of communities through lacrosse.
“And it’s happening all across the country from Nova Scotia all the way to British Columbia,” Downey added.
“Nations that might have played lacrosse a long time ago, or never knew the game, are starting to pick it up because they recognize it as an indigenous game and how important that can be as a cultural piece.”
Downey said a lot of the youth don’t know lacrosse is an Ojibwe game and that the communities throughout history have played it.
“It’s incredible to see their reactions when you tell them their families played lacrosse for generations and generations,” he enthused.
“I think they really connect with that and it gets them really excited about the game.”
The partnership of these organizations believes this is a very beneficial program and they intend to follow the youth participants to see where they end up.
“We continue to track outcomes,” Kovacs explained, noting there are Remote Community Intervention Workers, Right To Play mentors, and probation officers in the communities these youth re-integrate into.
“So they are all working together for one kid,” he remarked. “In years to come, we’ll know the outcome of this.”
“One of the things we enjoy most about the partnership is the reintegration aspect, so connecting the youth to the Right To Play programs back in their communities so they have positive role models to connect to when they reintegrate and they have a positive program to be a part of,” said Lauren Simeson, Sport for Development manager at Right To Pay.
And Kovacs stressed a couple of youth who were involved in last year’s program in Thunder Bay currently are playing lacrosse there.
“They realized they were good at it and that they had the best players telling them they are good at it,” Simeson noted.
“So they are telling them to keep playing and encouraging them, so when you leave knowing that, it’s a lot easier to join a league because professionals have been telling you that you can do this.”
“But we’re not attempting to create lacrosse players through the program,” Downey stressed. “We’re giving an outlet for positive lifestyle changes, positive lifestyle choices.
“Lacrosse is just a lens of a way of doing that.
“Because it’s so integrated and ingrained in Indigenous cultures, they can turn to their culture as an outlet, they can turn to sports as an outlet, they can turn to mentors for an outlet,” he explained.
“And it’s all about giving them choices for the future.”
“It’s about finding your passion,” echoed McElroy. “Channelling your energy towards that. Giving yourself the confidence that you can make these changes and improve.
“I think that’s the biggest thing to focus on.”
Downey said it’s incredible where a lacrosse stick can take you.
“I was struggling in high school and the stick is what saved me,” he admitted. “As I gained more success playing lacrosse in the States, my First Nation was watching me.
“So I got more attention from them and I reconnected with them.
“It helped solidify my identity as an aboriginal person,” Downey added.
“We all try to give examples of this. That following your passion can take you almost anywhere in the world; places you never expected.”
McElroy said he’s extremely grateful of all the opportunities he’s had through playing lacrosse and he’s thrilled to give back to a youth group that’s connected to the culture of the game.
“To me, that kind of brings things full circle,” he reasoned. “It’s, I think, the most respectful way I can show my appreciation for what the game means to me.”
He said you don’t get that in a lot of other sports, but that lacrosse is unique because of the culture and connection to First Nations’ people.
“Whereas in basketball and hockey, there are a lot of life lesson you can learn through sport. But lacrosse, that’s what sets it apart,” he stressed, noting lacrosse was sometimes played as a medicine game.
“So coming in here and working with the youth, promoting leadership skills and teamwork, we’re creating a healthier environment for these kids,” McElroy enthused.
“I think we’re connecting with what the game was originally played for.
“And to have an opportunity to celebrate that, in the partnership we all have together, is what is unique about this program,” he added.