BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Last week, the Lehigh men’s lacrosse team wrapped up another fall semester filled with community service initiatives and making a difference in the lives of others. For ten weeks, the Mountain Hawks separated into four groups and spent Wednesday afternoons at four locations: Calypso Elementary School, Nitschmann Middle School, Lehigh Child Care Center and South Bethlehem Boys & Girls Club.
The fall community service initiative has been in place every year since head coach Kevin Cassese’s first season at Lehigh in 2007.
“It’s evolved over the last seven and a half years,” said Cassese. “For the first couple years, we just found as many events we could latch on to and people who needed help in the community – between schools, road races, soup kitchens or anywhere else. We went to a lot of different places, then it evolved into coming up with a specific day every week that we could just focus on community service.”
Ultimately, the community service turned into one-hour sessions on Wednesdays. Groups of approximately 11-12 players went to the same location for all ten weeks.
Student-athletes went to Calypso as part of the Big Buddy program where they helped the students with their academics for about 30 minutes, then spent the other 30 minutes at recess.
“I spoke to a teacher there who said she has a waiting list for kids that want to get into the program,” said Cassese. “She also said that out of all their programs, it has the best attendance. They love it.”
Meanwhile, this marked the first season the Mountain Hawks have gone to Nitschmann Middle School. The school calls it the Clutch program (for Lehigh’s mascot). The middle schoolers are taking on different schools and universities as their own. While there, the Lehigh student-athletes helped the youngsters with school work while also playing games.
Senior captain Lukas Mikelinich was one of the Mountain Hawks who went to the Lehigh Child Care Center. While there, he’d work with kids in the preschool and in the toddler room, playing games and puzzles, reading books and just having fun.
“It was a great experience and I know my group really enjoyed interacting with the kids,” he said.
At the South Bethlehem Boys & Girls Club, the Mountain Hawks helped the youngsters with homework, and played games like basketball, kickball, ping pong, chess, video games and more.
“A moment that really stood out to me was the last day, when the children were notified that we weren’t coming back. I could really tell how much of a positive impact Lehigh Lacrosse has made in their lives,” said senior Kurtis Kaunas, a local product out of Schnecksville, Pa. “They seemed to genuinely love hanging out with the guys.”
The Lehigh Lacrosse players are making a difference in others’ lives, but the community experience has been just as positive and impactful for them.
“Upon arrival, the kids’ faces would light up, especially the older ones,” said Mikelinich. “They would get so excited to spend time with us and it really made us feel great about giving back to our community. It means a lot to make a difference in a kid’s day, just by spending time with them and playing games. The kids really looked up to us and it was heartwarming to know what we’re doing was special to these kids.”
Student-athletes can get wrapped up into life at Lehigh, so an experience like this is beneficial on several different levels.
“It’s been really touching just to go around and watch the relationships that are developed between our players and the kids they’re working with,” said Cassese. “It’s really healthy, not only for the students, but also for our players, to form a relationship with young people and become a mentor to them. They’re able to talk about life and be really great role models for them.
“It also helps our players keep some perspective,” Cassese continued. “They get trapped in the world of Lehigh University, between school, classes and lacrosse. Everything is high-paced and they need to perform; everything is super scheduled. This allows them to step outside of those schedules and see what’s going on around them.”
The players have come out with many takeaways from the experience.
“Lehigh Lacrosse plays lacrosse for a reason. Often times we would get absolutely embarrassed in a game of basketball,” said Kaunas. “A lot of talented young individuals reside in the Boys & Girls Club. Another takeaway is to really take a step back and realize how much of an impact we have on our community because although it may not appear on the surface, we have a bigger impact than most of us realize.”
The Mountain Hawks also conducted Community Night during the fall where they taught young, aspiring lacrosse players the fundamentals of the game. From Community Night to Wednesdays in the fall, and more, the team takes pride in giving back.
“It’s extremely important for our team to participate in community service activities,” said Mikelinich. “We are lacrosse players, but we are also part of this community in Bethlehem and I think people really appreciate what we do. It’s very gratifying to know that you’re making a difference in the community. As a team, we have really embraced giving back to the community and it has made us a tighter-knit group knowing we can make a difference in something much greater than us.”
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