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MORE THAN JUST CHILD'S PLAY

12/02/2011 12:01 AM -

Story by Randy Cleves

Founded in the mid ‘90s, this hockey organization has become an institution in West Michigan. Its games have brought joy to thousands, its players have helped make our community a better place, and its coaches have continually strived to build character in the players who’ve been under their watch.

The Grand Rapids Griffins, you guess? Well, you’re close. While that description certainly fits, it’s actually the Griffins Youth Foundation.

Now in its 17th season, the Griffins Youth Foundation pre-dates the team at Van Andel Arena that shares its moniker. Still, many of the Griffins’ most avid fans and followers have little awareness of the foundation or the positive impact it continues to have on the lives of hundreds of children in our area each year.

By its nature, ice hockey is one of the most expensive sports a child can play. Start with skates and a bagful of equipment, both of which are regularly outgrown. Add the cost of ice time, which is often scarce even in West Michigan. Throw in the unavoidable expense to simply get to most local rinks – basketball has its driveways, baseball has its sandlots, but the ability to play even pond hockey is dependent on the right location and weather – and the financial barriers to the sport are considerable.

This is where the Griffins Youth Foundation comes in.

Since the foundation was established by Dan and Pam DeVos in 1995, it has enabled thousands of kids – many of whom are underprivileged, at-risk, underserved or have other special needs – to play the sport we all love.

“I played the game of hockey growing up, and my parents made a huge sacrifice to allow me to do that,” said Bob Kaser, the Griffins’ vice president of community relations and broadcasting, who has also served as the foundation’s president since 2006. “It cost them a lot of money, and I know the joy I got out of it and the friendships I made. So being a part of the foundation is an amazingly good feeling, giving kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunities that I and so many others have had a chance to play this great sport.”

Nearly 300 children play in the foundation’s first-through-ninth grade and girls hockey programs at Griff’s IceHouse, while another 25 kids and teenagers with physical challenges play sled hockey as members of the Grand Rapids Sled Wings. In the fall of 2012, the offerings will expand through 12th grade, giving kids the opportunity to play from first grade through the conclusion of high school.

“It’s very rewarding for [the foundation’s board] to see the advances we’ve made, maybe the most significant of them being the expansion to 12th grade,” said Kaser. “That’s a great example of the growth of the program, and the commitment of our board members, (executive director) Lynn Rabaut, our volunteers and everyone who makes the program what it is.

“It’s really cool to go to Griff’s IceHouse on a Saturday and see the smiles on the kids who are playing and also the enjoyment of the families who are watching, and it all goes back to Dan and Pam, (past president) Lou Rabaut and many other significant people who got the foundation off the ground,” added Kaser.

Several past players have come up through the program’s ranks and gone on to skate on the competitive local high school scene. But there is no greater success story than Tyler Anderson, a longtime member of the Sled Wings who is playing his third season for the United States Developmental Sled Hockey Team. He has his sights set on one day representing our country in the Paralympic Games.

All of these opportunities are provided at no cost to the kids, as equipment, staffing and ice time are paid for by the foundation at a cost of more than $400 per child per year. The foundation could not operate without the generous and ever-growing support of dozens of individuals and businesses across West Michigan, who sponsor its programs and events, donate funds or equipment, or volunteer their time.

“We couldn’t do what we do without support from the Griffins Booster Club, particularly their annual silent auction, and a host of local companies and organizations such as Meijer, Dean Foods, Comcast, Fox Motors, and the DeVos and Van Andel family foundations,” said Kaser. “Our sponsor list grows and grows, and as we continue to spread the word, more and more people are impressed with what we’re doing and want to support it.”

Whether they realize it or not, nearly every Griffins fan has also played a part in the foundation’s continued success. If you’ve ever enjoyed the fun at the Great Skate Winterfest, swung a club at the annual golf outing, watched the Griffins and Sled Wings play a rousing game of sled hockey, placed bids during certain Griffins jersey auctions, or even purchased a 50/50 raffle ticket at Van Andel Arena over the last year, then you’ve helped support the foundation and the kids it serves.

“If you’re a Griffins fan, you’re a hockey fan,” said Kaser. “There’s a great feeling going to a hockey game and cheering on your team. Knowing what a great sport it is and the joy it brings you and your family, just imagine the joy it brings to a kid who wouldn’t get the chance to play if we didn’t have the foundation.

“There should be a pride in the Griffins family, our fans included, that we as an organization not only provide people with the great entertainment and joy of the Griffins, but that we have a foundation that extends that joy to the youth of our community. It’s just an incredible thing.”

And as much as the kids learn about hockey, they learn even more about life skills.

The foundation focuses on promoting academic excellence, community involvement and healthy lifestyles to the children it serves, while teaching them values like teamwork, commitment, generosity, goal-setting and perseverance. From College Nights at local universities to mandatory homework programs, community service projects and presentations on nutrition and exercise, their lessons extend far beyond the ice.

For more information on the Griffins Youth Foundation, please visit griffinskids.org or call (616) 970-5437.



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