Young Catholic athletes devote time, talent to helping others


Swimmers raise money for diabetes research in the “Waves of Hope Swim.”

BY LINDA DELMONICO PRUSSEN

Mary Jo Lorello was a beloved teacher and softball coach at Our Lady of Mercy Academy, Syosset, before she succumbed to lung cancer in July of 2008.

As OLMA student Aimee McMullen wrote in a Youth Voice article in TLIC last February, athletes, students and faculty at Our Lady of Mercy worked together to organize an annual 5k walk/run in her memory and to raise money to support the Lung Cancer Association.

It is just one of a number of ways in which students and faculty in Long Island’s Catholic high schools channel their energies and athletic abilities into helping others.

Waves of Hope

Another example is the “Waves of Hope Swim,” created by Christine Swartwout, a junior and varsity swim team member at St. Anthony’s High School, South Huntington. An avid distance swimmer, Christine had learned that her coach Dan McBride’s son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. So she decided to organize a long distance swim to raise money for the Diabetes Research Foundation.

Ninety-six swimmers, ranging in age from 11-70, participated in the two mile event August 17, starting at the Narrasketuck Yacht Club in Amityville and ending at Amityville Beach. They raised more than $10,000 for the cause.

“It was sunny and the water was calm, but there was a very strong current so it was very hard to swim,” Christine recalled. Still, she finished fourth among all the women who competed.

“Everybody was so enthused,” said Christine’s dad, Bill Swartwout. “All the swimmers were telling Christine to do it again next year, so it will be even bigger.”     More than just raising money, he and Christine’s coach agreed, the event also raises awareness. Those interested in participating in next year’s swim should visit www.wavesofhopeswim.org

Soccer for special athletes

The Kellenberg Boys soccer team shows their mettle on and off the field by assisting Richard Bletsch and his co-directors, Mary Jo Bursig and Brian Evers, with The Outreach Program for Soccer (TOPS). Kellenberg’s players first learned of TOPS, which makes it possible for athletes with special challenges to enjoy the sport of soccer, through Bursig’s son Matt, a former assistant soccer coach at the school.

“It’s for the children that cannot mainstream into our intramural program. What we offer them is alternatives,” said Bletsch, who with Evers started TOPS in 1991.

In fact, he explained, teaching participants to play soccer is only one of the program’s three goals, and serves as a vital tool in accomplishing the other two: helping the players separate from their parents so they can become more independent, and also helping them to interact with others. Socialization, he noted, is an important component of TOPS.

Kellenberg senior James Sullivan has been helping out at the program for a year. He said what keeps him coming back to lend a hand is being able to give the special athletes a chance to be with their peers. “It’s nice to see they have somewhere to go every weekend.”

Three junior players from Kellenberg — Chris Haffner, Andrew Stevens and Tom Salvatico — also helped out this year, as referees and in some cases assistants as well.

Those who know someone who might benefit from the program, or anyone interested in volunteering, may reach Bletsch at flandera@aol.com. No great knowledge of soccer is needed, just patience and an appreciation for the game.

The OLMA walk/run has grown into a family event, a celebration of life with children and parents running or walking together and various sports teams competing against each other in the run. The race also attracts alumni. “People actually flew back last year to do the walk,” said Ursuline Sister Meghan McArdle, OLMA campus minister. And, she added, family and friends of Ms. Lorello also participate.

The race had over 750 paying registrants this year, although fear of bad weather reduced the number of participants in the Oct. 17 event to a still respectable 450. Last year’s walk/run raised over $50,000, and $40,000 has been raised so far this year. Those wishing to make a donation may do so by visiting Our Lady of Mercy’s Web site at www.olma.org.