Hockey has helped bring West Michigan kids together for more than two decades to participate in a host of activities that are designed to instill ideals that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Sam Iannamico
Since its beginnings in 1995, the Griffins Youth Foundation has come a long way, mirroring the personal growth experienced by thousands of kids who have enjoyed the benefits of participation in its various programs.
Originally envisioned as a way to introduce hockey to kids without the means to enjoy the sport, the Griffins Youth Foundation expanded its vision over the years to embrace educational and wellness initiatives for the betterment of the youth who participate in the many activities centered at Griff’s IceHouse at Belknap Park.
What started as a chance for kids to play street and roller hockey has grown into an ambitious agenda of activities for youth from age 6 through high school. Ice hockey was initially limited to fourth and fifth graders, but foundation programs are now enjoyed annually by 350 kids in all 12 grades, thanks to the ice time now available with two sheets of ice at Griff’s IceHouse.
From Learn to Skate programs to the Sled Wings, a team of young athletes with physical disabilities that captured its first national championship in 2015, the Griffins Youth Foundation continues to develop opportunities that will enrich the lives of West Michigan youth and their families.
“Through the guidance of (founding president and current executive director) Lou and Lynn Rabaut and our outstanding board members, the foundation has accomplished more than the organization had ever dreamed, but we have our sights set on achieving even more in the years to come,” said Bob Kaser, the Griffins’ vice president of community relations and broadcasting, who has been serving as the president of the foundation since 2006. “With the support of countless parents, coaches, volunteers, sponsors and others, we have been able to make a difference in the lives of many children and their families.”
Kaser said the foundation extends its reach beyond the rink so kids are able to take advantage of educational opportunities as well as learn about healthy lifestyles and other valuable life lessons.
A community room inside Griff’s IceHouse not only offers games and arts and crafts but also tutoring and a book nook for reading. “Wendy Foy is our educational coordinator and she does an absolutely phenomenal job,” Kaser said.
Special events include a Career Day where all participants get the opportunity to learn about a variety of occupations. On another day, kids get a close look at animals from John Ball Park Zoo. “We continue to enhance our educational efforts,” he said.
To encourage kids to become good citizens, the foundation has introduced several events designed to give back to the community, from a parent blood drive to a College Day where two bus loads of kids and their parents travel to Ferris State University.
“Ferris State really stepped up their game to show parents the benefits of a college education,” Kaser said. “From a campus tour to a financial aid presentation to a Ferris State hockey game, their eyes are opened to the real possibility that a college education is within their child’s reach.”
The Griffins Youth Foundation is so focused on positive experiences that a decision was made several years ago to take checking out of all their hockey games. “We felt there was no need for any of our kids to feel nervous about playing the sport,” he said.
Kaser said the organization continues to seek new ways to impact kids. An annual one-day goalie clinic, now led by Griffins netminder Tom McCollum and Griffins goaltending coach Brian Mahoney-Wilson, has proven to be very popular. The group’s Let ‘Em Play initiative brings pickup-style games to Griff’s IceHouse on several days each month.
“Lou and Lynn Rabaut have worked hard to set into motion so many programs that have impacted our youth for the past two decades,” he said. “Their guiding hand has produced a number of teachers and coaches as well as many others who have had a positive impact in our community.
“As we look forward to celebrating the 25th anniversary of the foundation in a couple of years, we’re excited about the potential for many new and exciting programs, as others will eventually continue what they helped start. The future for the foundation is very bright.”