The work of Laker football team pitches in when help is needed

It was the ultimate special teams play. Thirty-six Grand Valley football players and coaches spent a week in early May in Mississippi, Gulf Coast, wielding hammers and nails to help build homes for Hurricane Katrina victims.

Working all day on job sites in small towns between Biloxi and New Orleans, the Lakers saw firsthand the devastation that still remains from the 2005 hurricane. They worked hard, met the people who would benefit from their labor and they left with a great sense of accomplishment and a range of emotions.

"It was hard, because I had all these emotions at the same time. I was so proud of our guys for working so hard. I was happy, yet so depressed, sad and sometimes angry" said head coach Chuck Martin. "It was frustrating to be there so long after it happened and still, at least where we were in Mississippi, we were only scratching the surface."

Martin and his wife, Dulcie, were at home watching CNN in January when a report about hurricane recovery efforts aired. He decided then to get involved and offer the opportunity to his team.

While it was unusual for a third of the team to volunteer together for an extended time, the Gulf Coast trip continues a tradition of community service for the Lakers. They break from August training camp each year for a community service day and have volunteered at Habitat for Humanity sites, area soup kitchens and shelters, DeVos Children's Hospital, Goodwill Industries and retirement communities. They help at many Grand Valley programs and events, from hauling suitcases for freshmen on move-in day to mentoring new players during an academic training camp.

Sean Stevens

"Some people think we’re crazy to give up a day of practice" Martin said, adding it's important to him and his staff that the players leave Allendale with more than memories of games played at Lubbers Stadium.

"We want our kids to appreciate what they have in life. Hopefully, they're learning to do things for others. When they're in college, they grow academically, athletically and as a person. We want to provide these experiences for them," he said.

Senior tight end Sean Stevens said he first hesitated before signing up for the Gulf Coast trip, considering that his short break between winter and spring/summer semester classes would be non-existent.

"Then I wanted to go because I knew we would be doing something right," said Stevens, a native of Grand Ledge. "At the end, I was having such a good time and working so hard, I felt I could have stayed another week."

Stevens has a pretty solid background in construction. Some guys, he said, had never swung a hammer before. Before heading to job sites each day, Martin organized players into groups, placing those with little or no experience with others like Stevens. Anthony Adams, a senior linebacker from Troy, calls himself the least mechanically inclined person he knows; still, it was important for him to go.

"Before asking us to sign up, Coach Martin asked us, 'Why wouldn't you help out people who need your help? They lost everything and you have so much," Adams said.

The team stayed in spartan barracks with other volunteers. For $15 a day, volunteers are housed, fed and given transportation to job sites. The Lakers raised $8,000 to fund the trip. Martin was told that of the 25,000 volunteers to pass through the area in the past two years, they were the only football team. "All the other groups were from churches or youth groups," he said.

Seeing the damage up close, rather than on television, was eye opening for Adams, Stevens and others

"Before we started working, on the first night we were there, we watched a videotape made by people who stayed during the storm. And they showed us what used to be in the area where we were working. Now it's completely different," Stevens said.

"I was really surprised, the devastation was still apparent."

Martin said the only operating businesses were Lowe’s and Home Depot. "That's what was so striking. I would talk to people who would say,"It's OK that I lost my house, because that can be rebuilt. But I lost my house, I lost my job, I lost my insurance, I lost my benefits," he said. "It was frustrating. These people are like you and me. They didn't do anything wrong.">

They met many of the people who would eventually live in those homes. Stevens said one day his group built a ramp to accommodate someone with diabetes who had trouble walking. The houses cost $14,000-17,000 to build.

"The people were really nice to talk with. And at the end of the day when we were done working, it was nice to look back and see what you did, like you built a deck. That must be the same satisfaction people in construction get," Stevens said.

By the end of the week, Adams grew more comfortable with tools, more confident in his ability to build something and more appreciative of his own surroundings. "You never think about how good you have it until you see things like that," he said. "My other thought was, "Wow, I never thought I'd be happy to be in Allendale, away from all the huge bugs they have down South."

There was some time for play. The Lakers entered two teams in a 'cabbage ball' tournament, similar to softball but without gloves and played with a much larger ball. If the locals weren’t familiar with Laker football, they quickly learned as the two teams cruised through the tournament and played each other in the championship game.

I'm in college, not making a lot of money, but there are people out there who have a lot less.

Samad Cain, a junior free safety from Detroit, was unable to make the Gulf Coast trip. He does lend a hand closer to home, however. Cain mentors young boys at the Baxter Community Center, a center that provides social services and mentoring services to low-income residents who live in the Baxter neighborhood in southeast Grand Rapids. He is also among the volunteers who help during the football program's academic camp for new players. The program, Freshman Athlete Scholastic Training (FAST), was established several years ago to help incoming athletes learn study and test-taking skills.

"It was hard for me when I transferred,” said Cain, who transferred from Minnesota. "My grades dropped dramatically. It was tough and I didn't have anyone to talk to, so I wanted to help out others who might be in the same situation."

Cain said he gives new players advice on everything from time management to coping with racial issues on campus. "It helps people to know I'm available. I do get lots of calls during the season from guys," he said.

He believes in Martin's philosophy of lending help if able. "Coach Martin always tells us that our situation is what we make of it. That hit home for me. I'm in college, not making a lot of money, but there are people out there who have a lot less," Cain said.

An elementary education major, Cain said his volunteerism has influenced his professional goals and he would prefer to work in an inner-city school. "At Baxter, there are kids that don't have any medical care and we're able to find them help. Or there are kids who don't get enough to eat and the center is able to provide them with food. It's real satisfying," he said.

Like all coaches and teachers, Martin hopes for exactly that sentiment from his players.

"We're learning to do things for others and hopefully this is something these guys will teach their kids,"Martin said. "We can't solve the world's problems, but we can do our share to help."


Page last modified March 17, 2014