“Forming relationships with these children is by far the most rewarding part. It’s such an amazing feeling when you realize how excited they are to see you every week, or when you miss a week and they notice and ask where you were...to learn about their lives, talk to them, and build relationships with them,” Olivia Francella (W ‘23) reflects upon her involvement in the organization Young Quakers.
Formed in 2012, Young Quakers is a partnership between the Netter Center and Penn Athletics. The organization allows Penn athletes and other members of the Penn community to work with elementary and middle school aged children in West Philadelphia public schools. They offer sports practices to students that attend UACS, University–Assisted Community Schools, including Comegys Elementary, Mitchell Elementary, Lea Elementary, and Hamilton Elementary. "Big Quakers," Penn volunteers, coach these children in track and lacrosse—providing them with mentorship and guidance as they do so.
“It is more about being there for them and building relationships than it is about the sports themselves,” Elyse Decker (C ‘21), a lacrosse coach for Young Quakers, adds.
Nearly the entire men’s and women’s lacrosse teams participate in Young Quakers as coaches, along with many members of the track team. In past years, there have been around 10 coaches per session and 20-40 kids between the four schools. Olivia, who works on the administrative side of the club, described the lack of athletic funding in many West Philadelphia schools—she explains that many children have no access to sports programs.
Unfortunately due to the pandemic, sports practices now take place entirely online. One member of the organization, Maggie Robinson (C ‘23), reflected upon the challenges that this has introduced. “It’s hard to get kids onto Zoom for practices after they’ve just finished doing school online for the entire day, which is understandable." The online format of Young Quakers has led to a large decline in participation by both coaches and children.
Maggie, Olivia, and Elyse all describe the difficulty of forming connections with children over Zoom. “My favorite part of Young Quakers was always filtering through and having side conversations throughout practice, which isn’t as easily done on Zoom...we’re trying to figure out a system, whether it be taking kids into breakout rooms to chat or something else. Right now it’s all trial and error,” Elyse described.
Despite this, all three members maintain that they are grateful that they’re still able to make a difference for these children, despite the pandemic. “Sports in general instill so many life lessons, I personally have gained so many from playing lacrosse. Instilling these values into young students is something that I think is so vital,” Elyse reflected. Olivia adds that athletics is a form of stress relief and stability and can create consistency in the lives of these children, many of whom wouldn't have the opportunity to participate in sports if not for Young Quakers.
Elyse explains that many of the students she's met through Young Quakers don't have family members that have attended college, and she believes that exposure to college students in any form is a benefit. For many of these children, college may seem like a very foreign concept, and forming connections with students can make their dreams feel more attainable.
“We’re all members of the West Philly community but it’s so easy to separate ourselves from that and feel like we’re some other entity. Having these connections makes me realize, makes all of us realize, that we are a part of West Philly, and not just Penn. It makes me feel more responsible for my actions as a member of this community,” says Elyse.