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Sometimes it's not easy for the elderly residents of Winchester House in Libertyville to get out and about and do fun things in the community.
So, members of the Libertyville High School dance and poms team occasionally bring the fun to them. Most recently, they brought a little slice of high school football to Winchester House.
"We did our football sideline routines to holiday music for the people at Winchester House," senior dance team captain Bethany Chang said. "Every time we go, people there tell us these really tough stories about how they don't get many visitors anymore, and how they feel alone. But they smile when they see us.
"We play Bingo with them. We talk to them. It makes us feel good that we can make them happy."
The Libertyville dance team spreads good cheer that goes well beyond Winchester House.
During the month of December, the girls have been collecting household products for Lake County Haven, a shelter for women and children. And they volunteered at "Feed My Starving Children," packaging donated food and supplies that were sent all over the world. In the fall, they raised $500 for breast cancer research.
"When you get involved with some of these projects, it makes you think about what you have and how blessed you are," Chang said. "The community does so much for us, we want to give back."
That seems to be a theme with a lot of high school athletes in the area, and in the spirit of the holiday season, I wanted to recognize that.
I had always heard about high school athletic teams that were heavily involved in community service projects and charitable work, particularly around the holidays, but I wasn't exactly sure who was doing what.
So I put a call out to the athletic directors of the 14 high schools we cover in Lake County and asked them to send me examples of what kind of selfless work the athletes on their campuses were doing.
I was inundated.
Our high school athletes have done coat drives, shoe drives, food drives. They've packaged up Christmas presents for needy kids, raised money for various charities, shoveled driveways for the elderly in their community, held bake sales that benefit animal shelters, served meals at soup kitchens. The list goes on and on.
One thing that really impresses me is that these are kids who are already swamped with hours of practice, travel to games, homework and school. Yet, they've made helping others one of their priorities.
Tennis player Patrick Grady, a senior at Mundelein, made helping a friend in need his one and only concern over an entire weekend last month.
Grady's friend, who used to play volleyball at Mundelein, was recently diagnosed with cancer and has lost movement and function in one of his arms and hand. He got to the point where he could no longer even play video games.
So Grady, the son of an electrical engineer and a whiz with electronics, challenged himself to design a one-of-a-kind Xbox controller that his friend could operate with just one hand.
"I'm really into that kind of stuff," said Grady, who has also built a website for his church and is currently working on some equipment that can be used in aviation. "I like computer parts and electronics and design and build-it-yourself kind of things.
"I did some research, I talked to some people about my design ideas, and then there was the actual building. I took some of the buttons off the front of an (existing) Xbox and put them on the back so that he can use those buttons when he holds the controller in one hand."
All together, Grady estimates that the controller, which works and allows his friend to play video games once again, took 15 man-hours to build. There was some trial and error.
"But really the only thing that would frustrate me was thinking that I wasn't able to do more to help," Grady said. "I just felt so bad for my friend, so helpless. There's so much that he can't do now because of the cancer.
"This was the least I could do for him."
That's the way Graham Miller feels about shoveling snow in the cold for some of the Wauconda football team's most loyal fans.
Miller, a senior linebacker for the Bulldogs, has been getting quite a workout this winter, and not just in the gym.
All of the snow this month has kept him and his teammates busy. They volunteer every winter to shovel snow at the Liberty Arms Retirement Apartment Complex, an assisted living community for seniors that is located right down the road from the high school.
Many of those same seniors return the favor by coming out in the fall to cheer at home football games.
"We'll be out there shoveling and scraping and brushing the snow off their cars and they'll come out and you get a lot of smiles and thank you's and sometimes even hot chocolate," Miller said. "And then you end up seeing a lot of those people at our games. It's a great way for us to have that connection in the community."
Whenever it snows, head coach Dave Mills will send out an e-mail to rally his troops for shoveling duty. Miller says that anywhere from 15 to 20 players will show up each time.
"For sophomores who can't drive, the older guys will pick them up. It's nice because with so many guys out there, it really doesn't take long to finish the work and it feels really good to give back. I think it helps you in your personal life. I think you're better off when you do things for others."
Members of the Warren softball team certainly were glowing with the Christmas spirit a few weeks ago when they did some "elf-ing" for underprivileged children.
They teamed up with One United Hope in Lake Villa to assemble and pack gifts for children from Kenosha to Joliet. The majority of the people receiving the donated gifts are wards of the state or teenage mothers.
"There were so many gifts, like two big rooms full of them," Warren senior outfielder Jazmin Bonke said. "The lady there expected us to be there for more than 3 hours, but we were so excited and so happy to be there that we got it all done in an hour and 15 minutes. We were looking for more things to do."
So the girls got to pick out gifts from the leftover stock and label them for a few individual kids who hadn't yet been checked off the list.
"That was the most fun, shopping for those kids," Bonke said. "On these labels, the kids had put down their names, their ages and what they might like for Christmas and it was fun to look around in that room of toys and find things they might like.
"We all really got into it. I think it always feels good to give back, as an individual. But I think it was even more fun for us to be together as a team. It's a really good bonding experience for everyone to get together and give back."
Here are some other examples of how high school athletes in Lake County have (or will) give back this holiday season:
Antioch baseball: Every other winter, the Sequoits conduct a coat drive and donate to the Open Arms Mission in Antioch.
Carmel football: On Dec. 27, the Corsairs will be driving to downstate Washington to help the victims of the recent tornado that leveled much of that community.
Grayslake Central and Grayslake North football: Both teams come together during their annual cross-town rivalry game to collect coats and outerwear for needy families.
Grayslake Central baseball, cheer, poms, track: The Rams have volunteered this month at the Shepherd of the Lakes PADS program preparing and serving meals and interacting with the young children who participate. They also make sack lunches for the participants to take with them. Other teams from Grayslake Central are scheduled to do the same in the New Year.
Lakes girls basketball: In conjunction with Open Arms Mission, the girls shopped for Christmas presents for 10 families in need. Also, each winter for the last four years, the Eagles help run a Special Olympics basketball tournament.
Lake Zurich boys basketball: The Bears held a shoe drive to collect new and gently used shoes for different charities throughout the area. They also wrapped and packaged gifts for deployed soldiers and are selling special T-shirts that they hope fans will wear to their games. Proceeds from the T-shirts will go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Libertyville baseball: Senior catcher Evan Skoug partnered with "Home Runs that Help" to help fight Nemaline Myopathy, a disorder that primarily affects skeletal muscles that are used for movement.
Libertyville girls bowling: To raise funds and awareness for Save-A-Pet, the girls held a bake sale and made $200. They are continuing their fundraising for the next month.
Mundelein dance team: The girls have adopted a family and will provide that family with Christmas gifts. They are also conducting a coat and outerwear drive for families in need.
Mundelein football: The Mustangs are involved with three charities this holiday season. They volunteer for a mobile food pantry by packaging and delivering boxes of food for families in need. They also are sponsoring a needy family for Christmas and will provide gifts, a meal and fellowship. The team has also been collecting toys for the Toys for Tots program.
Stevenson hockey: In early December, the Patriots volunteered at "Feed My Starving Children" in Libertyville to measure and pack food to be delivered to children around the world. During their shift, they helped pack 17,064 meals, which will feed 47 children for an entire year.
Vernon Hills boys and girls basketball, football, volleyball and poms: The Cougars worked at the Lake County food pantry in downtown Libertyville to distribute meals to needy families. Nearly 200 families each month benefit from this service.
Warren wrestling: The Blue Devils get in shape while they help others. They run a "bench-a-thon" in which they get pledges for how many reps they can bench of a set weight. Over the last three years, Warren has raised more than $18,000 through the "bench-a-thon," and all of that money goes to local families in need. "It is good for our kids to realize there is more to life than high school sports," Warren wrestling coach Jim Ouimette said. "Real people in the area and even on my team are in need. With the number of kids who participate in our program, I figured that we could really help some people out."
Wauconda girls basketball: At its home game against Vernon Hills on Dec. 17, Wauconda held a "Pack the Pantry" event. Fans who brought a non-perishable food item were admitted into the game for free. Last year's event collected 219 cans of food.
Wauconda wrestling: For the past three years, the team has walked the streets of District 118 to collect food for a local food pantry. Last month, the team spent 2 hours in one subdivision alone. Enough food was collected to feed 60 to 70 families.
Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw
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