The Wheaton College women's basketball team has earned a reputation for being as active in the community as they are on the court, engaging in service projects that range from food drives to coaching and mentoring the Heller's Angels Special Olympics basketball team.
The latter effort has put them in the running for an award from the NCAA. Most recently, the Wheaton women worked this semester with the eighth grade girls' basketball team from Norton Middle School, helping them grow athletically and personally.
The Lyons began their collaboration with the middle school team by hosting weekly basketball clinics throughout September. Beyond sharpening the girls' skills on the court, the clinics were also designed as a sisterly mentoring program.
"Every week, one of our players had a buddy," coach Melissa Hodgdon explained. "Each person had to set an athletic goal, an academic goal, and a lifestyle goal. It was neat to get insight on the commonality between the two groups, even though there's an age gap."
Hodgdon said that by the end of the month, many of the girls and women became close and have since kept in touch. Co-captain Gabby Barbera '13 chronicled the clinics on her team blog and reflected, "The outcome was very rewarding—seeing the kids gradually grow into not only better basketball players, but members of society as well."
On Nov. 17, the Norton girls returned to campus to attend the Cheryl Warren-Powers '95 Memorial Tournament and cheer on the team.
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. So we've followed them through the last four years."
Aside from the personal connection Hodgdon shares with the Norton team, she also recognizes the importance of connecting with the town of Norton and fostering positive relations between the college and its surrounding community.
"I've always thought that a college isn't the community, it's part of the community," Hodgdon said. "Our outreach benefits our basketball team as much as it benefits the town of Norton."
The women's basketball is known for its long-standing tradition of service, which Hodgdon has fostered since she became coach in 2003. This year, the team is participating in a holiday canned food drive and a fundraiser for adult special education students. Their four-year affiliation with the Special Olympics team has given rise to close friendships. They have also worked with foundations such as the DJ Dream Fund, a nonprofit organization designed to help young people through athletics and wellness programs.
Community service "has always been an integral part of our program," the coach said. "I just feel like 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."