Participating in high school sports can be a full-time job for the teenagers who choose to take part, with early mornings, late nights, long bus trips, grueling workouts and high-stakes competitions an accepted part of life as a varsity athlete.
The reward, the athletes, coaches and parents will say, is worth the commitment. Sports and other activities, at their best, teach life skills in ways that the classroom cannot, and help mold young women and men into healthy and productive members of their community. And to ensure that happens, some teams in the Flathead Valley are doing more and more of their teaching away from the weight room, the practice gym or the field on game days by embracing community service as a tent-pole of their programs.
For Tricia Dean, Flathead High School’s girls basketball coach, lending a hand in the community is as much a part of her sport as diagramming the intricacies of the pick-and-roll.
“Volunteering is a part of our program that is near and dear to our hearts,” she said. “(It) increases self-confidence and develops a sense of community. We are part of something bigger than ourselves, and that is a beautiful thing.”
Perhaps nowhere is the spirit of volunteerism more visible than in Glacier High School’s boys soccer program. The nonprofit Miracle League of Northwest Montana offers free athletic opportunities for people with special needs, and when they began a soccer program six years ago, Wolfpack players and coaches were there to help and have been coming back ever since. Glacier players and coaches run an annual clinic at Kidsports Complex that both teaches soccer skills and forges personal connections between young people who face different realities. Glacier’s players come up with their own drills and activities that they lead in small groups, and then jump on the field together with the Miracle League athletes for a friendly match.
“It’s been a great community service program and also a way to gain perspective and make sure that we realize how fortunate we are,” Ryan Billiet, Glacier’s boys soccer coach, said.
The annual Miracle League clinic takes place during the Wolfpack’s soccer season, breaking the team from the consistent rhythm of daily practice. It is time that could be spent working in the weight room or perfecting an individual skill, but Billiet believes the break might actually be a net positive on the pitch.
“Each year I talk with the (player) leadership and they really enjoy times away from training. Training can get a bit redundant at times,” Billiet said. “To me, that stuff is some of the most effective in the culture and chemistry piece, and it really shows. As the season went on this year, we just got better and better, and it wasn’t just because of the reps. A lot of it is they just truly played for each other.”
Volunteering for things like the Miracle League clinic are not a requirement in the boys soccer program at Glacier, but participation is rarely an issue. Beyond the Miracle League clinic last year, the team volunteered at the Flathead Valley Buddy Walk to support Down syndrome awareness, cheering on walkers and organizing a soccer-related activity, and the team has established a now-annual fall tradition of turning into a free leaf-raking service for unsuspecting Kalispell residents.
One day during the season, Glacier’s players each grab a rake and load into different vehicles to fan out around town. When they see a yard in need of raking, especially if it’s in an area where leaves can be raked to the curb and picked up, they will hop out, ring the doorbell, introduce themselves and get to work.
“We love doing that,” Billiet said. “I think the guys really enjoy it. We come back and share pictures and stories over some hot chocolate.”
The Glacier boys are hardly alone in volunteering among area students. In a survey of local schools conducted by the Beacon, programs valley-wide reported working with groups like HEART Locker and the Special Olympics, cleaning up garbage on U.S. Highway 93, reading to elementary school students, helping senior citizens move, installing American flags on Veterans Day, helping run Bingo nights, and assisting with myriad clinics, camps and programs for even younger student-athletes. And in volleyball, teams around the state — including in Northwest Montana — participate in Pack the Place in Pink every year to raise money for a breast cancer nonprofit that supports local patients. During the Pack the Place for Pink match, players wear pink uniforms and donations are collected, and the organization has been able to provide more $450,000 to women in need since 2007.
Those experiences, the coaches say, are what eventually resonates most with the young men and women they are charged with leading. It’s something Glacier’s boys soccer coach has seen time and again when he reminisces with a former player about his high school days.
“It’s rarely about the games,” Billiet said. “It’s always about the bus trips and the memories and the giving back and the stuff we do in the summer and the team-building we do. It’s fun to see that whole character piece and who they’ve become.”
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