When Football’s Toa Lobendahn signed on to become a part of the Trojan Family, he was unaware of just how far the cardinal and gold ties extend. Five months ago, Lobendahn was sitting in a high school classroom preparing for his final exams. This past Saturday, he found himself in the middle of Nickerson Gardens, the largest housing project west of the Mississippi River.
His task: boost kids up to the basketball hoop for what would otherwise be an impossible slam-dunk.
During the late morning last Saturday, the children of Watts, CA began to gravitate toward Nickerson Recreation Center as word spread that a sports camp featuring Trojan athletes was in session. The visit, organized by Athletes in Action leaders Tommy Van, Chris Willson and Executive Director Michael Sylvester, brought student-athletes from various sports to the nearby community. With hopes of inspiring college aspirations among the youth of Nickerson Gardens, the first annual Trojan Sports Camp introduced positive role models to a sometimes forgotten subset of the Los Angeles area through the binding camaraderie of sport.
Having previously worked with Nickerson Gardens during a summer program, Van and Willson, of Water Polo and Football respectively, felt compelled to make it the site for what they hope will become a lasting vehicle for inspiration.
The idea for an annual sports camp was rooted in the goal of using athlete’s expertise to enrich the lives of the next generation. “I realized the impact we can have on the kids just by being a college athlete,” said Willson.
Hundreds of residents turned out to watch as the youngest of their neighborhood engaged with collegiate athletes in stations for football, baseball, basketball and soccer. At each station, student-athletes led the kids through warm ups and taught them technical skills. Participants looked on and listened intently, quickly picking up each drill and emulating their coaches.
For the athletes involved, the experience went beyond teaching the fundamentals of sport. “I feel just being there and showing them that we care had the greatest impact on the kids. I’m sure they will be able to use some of the fundamentals that we taught them through drills, but what really matters to them is that there are people at USC who love them,” said Willson.
Junior Lainy Barkley, one of the nearly forty volunteers in attendance, considered the day an excellent embodiment of Trojan values. “The Trojan Family doesn’t just look out for each other, but others around them as well. I have seen people seek not only their own good, but work for the happiness and good of others by giving their time, money, and resources,” said Barkley.
Trojan alumni also volunteered for the day. Former baseball stand-out Matt Nestlerode spent the morning patiently pitching at the diamond, making sure that every boy and girl had the opportunity to get a hit and run to first base.
The event brought together USC’s finest student-athletes, both from the current generation and from years past, all for the simple purpose of lifting up members of the extended Trojan community. As his mentee slammed a basketball through the hoop for the first time, Toa Lobendahn became quickly acquainted with his new family.