Net Gains A dozen Washington and Lee University lacrosse players spent a week this summer volunteering with children in Nicaragua, sharing lessons in lacrosse and life through a nonprofit called Lacrosse the Nations.
“It was not necessarily about playing the sport, it was about having an impact on the kids on a much deeper level.”
— Gene McCabe
Washington and Lee University athletes Lauren Procaccino and Charlie Cory both grew up in lacrosse-playing families. They never wondered whether they’d have proper equipment or a decent place to play their favorite sport.
In August 2016, Procaccino and Cory traveled with a group from W&L to Managua, Nicaragua, where they volunteered with local children through an outreach program called Lacrosse the Nations (LtN). There, they found kids happily scrabbling on dirt and gravel with worn, hand-me-down sticks and gloves — and no helmets or padding at all.
“It was a huge eye-opener,” Cory said.
“It made me very appreciative of what I have and how lucky I am to be able to attend this prestigious institution,” said Procaccino. “But it also taught me that you can be happy with very little. The kids were super happy and appreciative.”
Lacrosse the Nations is a nonprofit organization created in 2009 by former college lacrosse players Brad Corrigan and Brett Hughes. Their idea was to teach children health education and valuable life skills through the game of lacrosse. Today, LtN has programs in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Charlottesville, Virginia. American high school and college teams regularly send players on LtN volunteer trips.
Kim Cory, Charlie’s mom, is on the executive board of Lacrosse the Nations and works extensively with the program in Charlottesville, where they live. In 2015, the Cory family pitched the idea to W&L men’s lacrosse coach Gene McCabe that some of their players should partner with LtN for a service trip. A few W&L players had been on high school trips through the nonprofit and found them rewarding.
McCabe said he was easily convinced by “the impact that we were going to have on the lives of these kids, and also the impact it was going to have on our own kids.” He said the program’s mission and philosophy seemed to align well with W&L’s values of honor, integrity and civility.
The men’s lacrosse team spent most of the last academic year raising money for the trip. They sold T-shirts, solicited donations and created the Scoop for Loot campaign, which asked donors to pledge a certain amount of money for each ground ball picked up during the season. The team raised about $20,000, half of which subsidized trip costs. The other half, about $10,000, was donated straight to Lacrosse the Nations.
“For us, that’s about four months’ worth of programming in Nicaragua,” said LtN Executive Director Javier Silva, “So it’s a quarter of the Nicaragua budget, which is huge — it’s massive. That money goes to the scholarships that we provide, the salaries that we provide our directors, university scholarships for kids and coaches. We can do a lot with a little bit of money.”
The 12 W&L volunteers, including three female lacrosse players, McCabe, assistant men’s lacrosse coach Eric Koch and his wife, Karen, practiced and played lacrosse with children at two sites in Nicaragua: a public school called Colegio Chiquilistagua and an organization called Club Hope, which offers preschool/kindergarten, tutoring, music classes, nutritious meals and lacrosse. At the end of the week, they ran a clinic with a large group of kids from both sites.
Through the game, LtN coaches and volunteers teach lessons in areas such as goal-setting, teamwork, dealing with failure, self-confidence and respect for women. Face time with college-level coaches and players during the W&L visit was invaluable for the LtN kids, Silva said.
“One of the biggest things was showing the kids a level of lacrosse they don’t get to see every day, and that really motivates our players to stay committed, stay in school, go to university and have high aspirations,” he said. “Having college kids come down to show them that if they stick with the sport they can do a lot of positive things, that is one of the biggest impacts.”
Another impact came from having women’s lacrosse players show up as volunteers, because most of the coaches and volunteers are male. “The girls were super excited to see the women there,” said Cory. “As soon as they saw them, they started to call out ‘Chicas!’ ‘Chicas!’ ‘Chicas!’ ”
“I think it was helpful being over there and being able to relate to the girls, because the girls’ game is different,” said Procaccino, who ended up donating some of her lacrosse equipment to the program. “They only had boys’ sticks, and I really wanted the girls to have girls’ sticks.”
All week, Silva watched as W&L volunteers bonded with individual Nicaraguan children. Junior Bobby Doyle, for example, taught several kids how to face off. “After playing their games, they would come back and look for Bobby,” Silva said. “They were just so impressed, they had never seen anybody do face-offs like that. I still see them doing these things in practice now.”
Just as the children benefited from their time with W&L volunteers, the college group was inspired by the kids.
“You saw the brightness, energy and the joy of playing the game,” McCabe said. “A number of our players said it reignited their passion for the game of lacrosse and reminded them why they love playing the game in the first place. I also believe it instilled in all of us a greater sense of purpose in our lives moving forward. Managua is very much a developing country, and poverty runs rampant and problems are visible, so our ability to impact the lives of others in a positive way became very real. I think we came home with a deeper appreciation for the lives that we have here, but also inspired to do more to help those less fortunate in the future.”
Everyone who made the trip seems ready to do it all over again next year. Yet another positive outcome has been stronger relationships between the men’s and women’s teams at Washington and Lee.
“I saw those bonds grow for sure,” McCabe said. “It was not necessarily just about playing the sport, it was about collectively having an impact on the kids on a much deeper level. To see them work together and give selflessly to these kids was something that really impressed me. They created great memories that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”