Wingate University and Willow Oaks YWCA work to better children’s lives
The partnership between Wingate University and the Willow Oaks Youth Learning Center of YWCA runs deep, and has persevered for more than 15 years, according to Youth Learning Center Coordinator Suzy Rogers.
“During this time we’ve had the opportunity to partner with many different aspects of the university,” Rogers said.
Proof of the strong bond between the two organizations revealed itself in 2006, when ESPN selected Wingate University’s sport sciences majors from among 44 university applicants to receive its prestigious Play Your Way Grant. Rather than keeping the lion’s share to reinvest in university programs, they chose to share 25 percent of the $1,000 award with Willow Oaks.
Organized by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education and ESPN, the Play Your Way grant empowers children ages 7 to 12 to get active by creating physically active games as a part of community clubs.
Fitness & Academic Role Models
Whether swimming or tennis instruction, cross country or golf, Wingate University Sports Sciences students have worked with Willow Oaks YWCA children to teach them the fine points of various sports – in an effort to reinforce the importance of physical fitness. The students also serve as mentors and academic tutors.
On average, between 30 and 40 children between the ages of 5 and 12 participate during the school year and/or in the summer. Built in 1984, the Willow Oaks YWCA serves the families around it, many of whom live in high-risk situations.
According to Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Information and Game Operations David Sherwood, Associate Professor of Wingate’s School of Sports Sciences Dr. Dennis Johnson, who also happens to be the university’s cross-country coach, as well as head swimming coach Kirk Sanocki, lead these efforts.
Not only do student athletes travel to Willow Oaks, the children are welcome during school breaks to visit the university. “Field trips to Wingate allow our kids hands-on instruction and use of sports equipment,” Rogers said. “Whenever I tell them we are headed that way – they get very excited.”
Former swim coach Christy Bostic fondly recalls the high energy levels whenever Willow Oaks children headed to the pool. During her tenure at Wingate from 2001 to 2007, she worked with Sanocki and other university students to provide water introduction to many of them.
“For many of these kids, access to a pool was not something they were given regularly,” she said. “We would put them in life jackets and let them play and splash around.” Not only did this teach them to be comfortable in the water, Bostic said, it also was great fun and exercise.
Along with these interactive lessons, the children also are learning the health benefits of eating properly along with fitness, Rogers said. “The students are tremendous role models for our kids and offer positive reinforcement.”
A growing partnership
The Willow Oaks-Wingate partnership has grown to include students from other departments, including Psychology and Sociology, who participate as part of a “Crossroads Partnership.” According to Director of Services Caroline Twigg, the Crossroads Partnership is more than just a traditional service project.
Participating students commit to weekly visits to the Willow Oaks YWCA, where they tutor and create child-friendly workshops designed to examine social justice topics. According to Twigg, presentations about people like Rosa Parks, for example, allow children to examine subjects like diversity and tolerance.
A parent’s perspective
“This Y is like a mother to my kids when I’m not there,” said mother of five Octavia Barrett, whose four oldest children have participated in various Willow Oaks-Wingate programs. Her children attend the YWCA after school as well as during summer and other school vacation breaks. “They have learned a lot of skills and about partnership,” Barrett said, “and learned a lot about meals and nutrition.”
Octavia’s mother Cynthia, a longtime volunteer as well as a parent to a child in the program, couldn’t agree more. “The children are learning about discipline and respect,” she said, “and have a lot of fun.”