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DII Festival to emphasize youth-based community engagement

By David Pickle

Division II plans to take its community-engagement efforts to new levels at the 2013 Winter National Championships Festival next month in Birmingham.

Community engagement is a key element of Division II’s strategic-positioning platform, and it’s been a part of the Festival fabric since Division II student-athletes presented their first check to Make-A-Wish at the inaugural Festival in Orlando in 2004.

Children at Birmingham’s A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club will interact with Division II student-athletes during the March 5-9 Winter National Championships Festival.This year, however, community engagement will be woven into the daily make-up of the March 5-9 event, which will determine Division II national champions in men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s indoor track and field, and wrestling.

“The groups we’re working with in Birmingham are thrilled at the prospect of getting to interact with Division II student-athletes,” said Jill Willson, a Division II consultant who is coordinating the community-engagement efforts. “They’ve come up with some great ideas to make the experience special for the local kids and also for our student-athletes.”

The structure allows each of the three sports – swimming, wrestling and track – to have its own day of community engagement.

The greatest involvement will come from Birmingham-area Boys and Girls Clubs (A.G. Gaston and Hueytown). Kids from those clubs will have unique interactions with the wrestling student-athletes and opportunities to attend the Festival itself.

At least 20 wrestlers will visit each of the clubs Wednesday, March 6, and then up to 150 from each club will attend championship competition on Friday, March 8 (A.G. Gaston), and Saturday, March 9 (Hueytown).

It is a big deal, said Tyrenda J. Williams-Reed, director of outreach at the A.G. Gaston Club. Actually, it’s bigger than big.

“I know in Division II they do this every other year all over the country, but for this to be happening in Birmingham and for our club to be the partner, this is just exceptional,” she said. “This is the best thing since sliced bread. We’ve never been singled out for anything like this, and we’ve been around since 1966. This really is an honor and shows our kids that you are something special, and in a way that’s going to knock your socks off.”

To make the most of the opportunity, Williams-Reed said her club will use the experience to increase college awareness for the participating boys and girls.

“We want this to be kind of our college prep week, in the sense that whether they’re teenagers or 6-years-old, we start planting the seed now that college is within reach, and we’re showing them that’s true because student-athletes are literally going to hang out at your club.”

To get things started, the Gaston Boys and Girls Club on Monday began a “Family Tree Search and Seek” contest that will reward club members who turn in the name, relationships and college of a family member who attended a Division II school. The Boys and Girls Club leaders will heighten excitement about the prospect of special guests and then build understanding of education-based athletics through the viewing of movies such as “Hoosiers,” “Rudy,” “Remember the Titans” and others.

One purpose is to raise kids’ college awareness beyond Alabama and Auburn, two nearby Division I powers that are in the news almost daily in Birmingham. Both are fine schools, but Williams-Reed wants the children to broaden their view.

“We want to introduce to our children all the schools that are represented, what parts of the country they’re coming from the types of colleges that are represented in Division II,” she said. “Because for a lot of our kids, they don’t get out of their neighborhood, they never leave Birmingham, and college might not even be an option.

“We want them to see that the world is so huge and there are so many options and so many opportunities out there. Yes, sports can be your doorway, but they should think about more than Alabama and Auburn. There are a lot of choices out there.”

When the wrestling student-athletes arrive at the clubs March 6, they will be assigned to the gym (to demonstrate the sport), to the learning center (a geography lesson, based on where the student-athletes are from) or to the art center (making college pennants).

To follow up, the kids from the A.G. Gaston club will attend the Festival on Friday while the Hueytown kids will take in competition Saturday. Some of the Gaston kids may get a special treat by carrying the weight-class banners at wrestling’s Grand March on Friday evening.

The track and field and swimming student-athletes also will have special opportunities. A number of track participants will go to Birmingham’s Children’s Hospital on Thursday, March 7, where they will visit seriously ill children.

Because the swimming and diving schedules are so full, the community-engagement activity for that sport will have to come to the competition site. Kids from the Children’s Village and J.J.’s Freedom Center (a residential center and after-school care) will visit the swimming competition on Friday, with an opportunity to interact with selected swimmers between 4:30 and 6.

Each child participating in one of the activities will be provided with an “I Chose Division II” backpack (each filled with healthy food by Festival student-athletes) and a Festival T-Shirt. Because of their strict dietary needs, the children at the hospital will receive a medallion in lieu of the food.

The Festival also will feature an opportunity for special-needs children.

As far as Williams-Reed is concerned, it is all a godsend. Her A.G. Gaston  Club is perhaps best known for its excellent athletics offerings, including a football program so strong that parents actually tailgate before games.

“They are excited, and they are all rootin’ on their babies,” she said. “But at the end of the day, we need that Monday through Friday involvement as well.

“I think that’s what these student-athletes are going to help us plant in the child, and if the child demands it, the parents will meet us there.”