Basketball team’s goal is helping others

Basketball giving back
Norton Middle School eighth grade girls’ basketball team members cheer on Wheaton’s women’s basketball team before a game in Haas Athletic Center.

While winning is the aim in any competitive sport, the Wheaton women’s basketball team has earned a reputation for being just as dedicated to serving the local community as they are to dominating the court. Over the past several years, they have engaged in projects that range from food drives to coaching and mentoring.

“It has always been an integral part of our program,” said head coach Melissa Hodgdon. “I just feel that character is a big part of your growth as a student and a student-athlete. Giving back to the community is a big piece of that.”

During the fall semester alone, the Lyons mentored the eighth grade girls’ basketball team from Norton Middle School, worked with the Heller’s Angels Special Olympics basketball team, and partnered with the DJ Dream Fund, a nonprofit organization designed to help young people through athletics and wellness programs. They also wrote and sent letters to Walter Reed Hospital to support wounded soldiers.

The Lyons began their collaboration with the Norton Middle School girls’ basketball team by hosting weekly basketball mentoring sessions throughout September. Beyond sharpening the girls’ skills on the court, the clinics were also designed as a sisterly mentoring program.

Every week, one of the Wheaton players had a buddy. Each person had to set an athletic, academic and lifestyle goal. Even though there’s an age gap, the two groups found commonalities. By the end of the month, many of the girls and women became close.

“It was great to get to know the coach and the team,” said Madeline Murphy, a Norton eighth-grader and clinic participant. “I thought the clinic was only going to be about basketball, but it turned out to be much more.”

On Nov. 17, the Norton girls returned to campus to attend the first annual Cheryl Warren-Powers ’95 Memorial Tournament and root for the Lyons.

Four years ago, Hodgdon and the women’s team worked with the same group of girls, and Hodgdon has kept in touch.

“Some of the girls come to our games often,” she said. “It’s really special when I look up in the stands and one of them waves, or when one says hello as we run through the tunnel. We’ve gone to some of their games as well. We do pizza parties and things like that, too.”

The Lyons’ semester-long work with the Heller’s Angels Special Olympics team began with the November 10 annual Heller’s Angels Fall Harvest Ball, which the women’s team co-hosted. The ball included dancing, arts and crafts, and awards, and by the end of the night, the event had raised $3,400 for the Special Olympics team.

“We always have such a good time with them and can’t wait to hang out with them again,” said team captain Gabriella “Gabby” Barbera ’13, reflecting on the experience on her team blog.

Heller’s Angels returned to Wheaton on Dec. 7 to cheer on the Wheaton women in their matchup with Babson College. The Angels also competed in a halftime scrimmage organized by the Lyons.

In recognition of this work, the NCAA nominated the Lyons for their monthly Division III Special Olympics Spotlight Poll, and the team won for the month of December.

“I am truly amazed by the level of commitment these students show to Heller’s Angels,” team co-founder Caron Heller said. “The Wheaton athletes are enthusiastic leaders, teammates and cheerleaders for the Special Olympics athletes. It is obvious this relationship goes well beyond fulfilling community service obligations.”

—Alex Cilley ’14