Is there ever a time when sports can transcend the action on the field or court, when the organization of individual athletes can affect a certain group of people for the better?
For Hazard resident Jane Olinger, the answer to that question is most certainly in the affirmative.
It was 2010 when Olinger decided she wanted to see local youth presented with more options locally during the summer months. She traveled to what some referred to as the underprivileged neighborhoods in Hazard and met with residents there, spreading the word about a new community effort aimed at reaching the area’s younger generation.
“I wanted to let them know something positive was going on in the community,” Olinger said, “and try to give them a sense of belonging and try to expand their horizons.”
That effort culminated in the Community Sports League, which last month completed its fourth season during a series of basketball games at the gymnasium at Roy G. Eversole Elementary. Several children and teenagers up to age 15 participated this year, Olinger said, and this league is reaching local youth who otherwise may not have joined a sports team or participated in a social setting.
Olinger and the league’s organizers have been able to use it as a tool to incorporate a sense of community through a team sport like basketball. The league kicks off each year as school ends, and includes practices and weekly games. And for the youth who participate, Olinger said it also gives them something to do and perhaps stay out of trouble.
“That’s our main goal, just to give them something positive to do rather than just hanging out and being witness to what’s going on around them in those particular neighborhoods, the negativity,” she said.
The league wasn’t a difficult sell back in 2010. Olinger already knew many of the families, and an initial grant gave them money enough to purchase shoes for each of the players. And since then, they have also been able to incorporate messages about physical fitness and nutrition at the same time. With recent health statistics showing Perry County near the bottom in the state, Olinger said this is an important emphasis.
And there have been added benefits beyond sports and social issues. The league garnered the support of Dr. Karen Kimsey, who this year picked up the tab to send players to King’s Island in Cincinnati. That particular trip, for some of the players, was their first ever outside of Kentucky, Olinger said. They got the chance to meet former University of Kentucky star Josh Harrelson, and even some players from the Cincinnati Reds.
“Those kids, some of them were just amazed,” Olinger said. “Some of them saw a taxi for the first time. I would not take anything for some of the expressions they had on their faces. It was just amazing.”
Olinger added that some valuable community support has also come from Annie Williams with Hazard Clinic and, in the past, Susan Duff.
Though the emphasis remains on the players, this past season was also an opportunity for former participants to begin their new roles, with some returning to coach the current teams. Olinger said she was happy the league had left such an impression with former players who volunteered their time to return this year, and she hopes it will happen again when the league opens for a new season in 2014.
If anyone wants to lend a hand to the Community Sports League in Hazard, Jane Olinger can be contacted via telephone at 439-4195 or 233-1220.