A Bronx Tale: Lacrosse Links Wilton and South Bronx Kids for GOOD

Wilton is known as a sports-loving athletic town, with many children groomed from a young age to be dedicated to the game, no matter the sport. Now, several young Wilton athletes have taken their love of the game one step further, to a part of New York City very different from where they’ve grown up. They have given their time and resources, and have made connections and new friends through a shared dedication to lacrosse in a way that will change all who are involved.

Wilton’s youth and high school lacrosse players have partnered with Bronx Lacrosse over the course of the pandemic to provide sports and enrichment services to students in low-income and at-risk neighborhoods of the South Bronx.

Creating Opportunities Other Sports Don’t

Dan Leventhal founded the organization in 2018 to address disparities he witnessed firsthand as a middle school teacher in the South Bronx–what he said is “the poorest district in America.” At his school, athletic opportunities were weak, with only one boy’s basketball team and no sports options for female students.

Since its start, Bronx Lacrosse has partnered with three South Bronx schools and serves 150 students. Although lacrosse is at the heart of the program, Leventhal said it is only a fraction of what the organization does. In addition, it offers tutoring, mentoring, behavioral intervention services, state test preparation, and social and emotional skill-building, with the goal of creating well-rounded and successful students.

Leventhal explained how the lack of sports opportunities for young people in the Bronx is inextricably connected to specific health issues. “It’s no coincidence in those areas as well there’s much higher health disparities, higher rates of obesity and asthma, and hunger.”

While students there have some exposure to sports like basketball, baseball, and football, lacrosse is fairly new to the area. And the benefits of playing are many.

“Lacrosse creates an opportunity that other sports don’t. There’s not a lot of Black and Brown kids that are playing lacrosse, which can give our kids an opportunity to stand out in college admissions and other opportunities from there.”

Leventhal also spoke about how learning the sport of lacrosse can help with kids’ confidence and inspire them to achieve in areas outside of athletics.

“Before our program, kids had never played it before. So they think, if they can start to pick up lacrosse, and they get confidence in picking up something they’ve never done before, they can do well in school too,” he said.

It was in the organization’s first year that the connection was made between the NYC and CT teams, when Wilton’s middle school and high school lacrosse players began stepping in to help Bronx Lacrosse with practices, tutoring, and fostering peer connections.

Connection on the Field Grew Into Lifelines through the Quarantine

The partnership between Wilton and Bronx Lacrosse started when the Bronx Lacrosse team competed in the 2018 annual Wilton Youth Lacrosse Jamboree. Wilton resident and lacrosse parent Cindy Wiseman received an email from another team parent, Mike Corry, asking families to donate used equipment for the Bronx Lacrosse team. Cindy explored the program’s website, became immediately inspired by their mission, and wanted to help.

At first, Cindy, her son Quinn Wiseman, and a few other boys would drive to Randall’s Island once a week to help run practices and tutor students with schoolwork.

As time went on, more Wilton lacrosse players got involved. In March 2020, they held a bake sale fundraiser at the Village Market, just days before the first COVID-19 cases were reported.

When COVID-19 hit, “the panic was pretty real” for the Bronx Lacrosse kids, Cindy recalled.

Leventhal was worried about losing contact with his players without in-person interaction so more Wilton students volunteered to provide virtual tutoring services once a week.

The players on Wilton’s girls’ lacrosse team also had the idea to write pen pal letters to the Bronx students during quarantine. Cindy said receiving a piece of mail while stuck at home gave the kids something to look forward to during such an uncertain time.

COVID-19 also sidetracked the program’s plans to have an annual ice skating trip in the city. So the Wilton kids came together to spread holiday cheer, putting together holiday gift bags for the Bronx students with logoed mugs, hot chocolate and marshmallow packets, socks, a book, cookies, and candy, and drove into the city themselves to hand the bags to the kids outside in person.

Cindy has been inspired by the Wilton kids’ creativity and passion for the program.

“What I love is that everyone who has done something has wanted to do it again, even when it’s not needed, which speaks a lot to Dan’s program,” she said.

Leventhal is grateful for the Wilton partnership and told GOOD Morning Wilton about how important social connection has been in the last year.

“During the pandemic, [it’s] taken a toll socially and emotionally [on the kids] as well, they’re feeling more isolated.”

The connections have benefitted the Wilton students as well. WHS student Quinn Wiseman said being a part of the program has been extremely rewarding for young volunteers like himself.

“Selfishly, it’s been a lot of fun and it’s something that I really like doing, whether it be tutoring or coaching,” he said. It’s even helped him develop a close relationship with the NYC student he tutors, and he talked about learning the power of commitment.

“It’s taught me the importance of showing up and being there when you say you will. The impact that I can have just by being there, that’s pretty powerful,” Quinn said.

WHS student volunteer and lacrosse player Meghan Chapey has also felt fortunate to witness the enthusiasm the Bronx players show for the sport during her time helping out at an in-person lacrosse clinic.

“Making a connection with these younger girls who don’t have access to lots of green space or all the amenities we have here in Wilton has been a great learning and growing experience for all of us,” Chapey said.

The Wilton lacrosse girls are currently planning more fundraising events and are looking forward to May 2 when the Bronx girls are set to visit Wilton. (The Bronx boys will be in Wilton on May 8 to play the 5th grade and 7th grade teams.)

Bronx Lacrosse recently celebrated an exciting accomplishment. One of the students in the program committed to play lacrosse at the college level. However, Bronx Lacrosse is not trying to pump out star athletes.

Cindy says “the goal is not to create the best lacrosse players, but so that these kids love lacrosse so that they will go to school so they can go to lacrosse after. It’s really about keeping them in school.”

There are currently 19 WHS students (Ben Calabrese, Meghan Chapey, Halley Costello, Sophie Essig, Jackson Kelly, Conor Lillis, Owen Lillis, Grant Masterson, Sophia Polito, Jack Rosen, Owen Rosen, Sam Rosen, Jake Sommer, Mia Sommer, Gwynn Sullivan, Christian Theoharides, Grace Williams, Quinn Wiseman, and Sean Wiseman) and nine alumni (Andrew Calabrese, Harley Jeanty, Emily Kager, Joe LaSala, Peter McMahon, Graham Parsons, Casey Pearsall, Jay Spaulding, and Caitlin Young) who have volunteered for Bronx Lacrosse:

The current students are in the process of urging the WHS administration to grant them official club status, something Cindy said would allow them to continue the tradition for years to come.

Assistant Principal Greg Theriault said because of the COVID-19 pandemic, WHS had to press pause on launching any new pilot clubs during the current school year, but he’s hopeful for the future. “We always want to support our students’ civic engagement and outreach in the community. As is the case with all of our mitigation strategies, we will continue to monitor and review our practices for the remainder of the school year.”

In the meantime, one way the wider Wilton community can help the Bronx Lacrosse effort is through contributions to the organization’s fundraising efforts. Considering that lacrosse is an expensive sport–according to Lax Weekly, gear can cost between $515 and $1,015 per player, any donation would be helpful.

“We’re probably in one of the most under-resourced communities in America and with that comes a lot of barriers,” Leventhal said.

Bronx Lacrosse is currently fundraising for a four-day lacrosse summer camp in the Adirondacks. Leventhal is excited to “give our kids experiences outside of the confines of the city, to take them swimming in a lake, boating, rock climbing…,” but he has not yet reached his fundraising goals.

Leventhal is proud of the work the program has accomplished. “We’re changing the game,” he said. Knowing that the Wilton community is part of that change is something many in town can be proud of.