For any elementary school, athletic equipment comes at a price. And for a school in a struggling neighborhood with a limited budget – such as Just Elementary in Tampa – that price is often too high. As a result, new footballs, basketballs and athletic gear is scarce at Just Elementary School, if available at all.
Thanks to an annual tradition of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the United Way, however, that is changing at this school and others in the Buccaneers' community.
Last Tuesday, Just Elementary received a healthy donation of sports equipment from the Buccaneers and United Way for the team's annual Hometown Huddle project, providing the students with new ways to enhance their physical education classes.
The Bucs' donation fell in line with the NFL's Play 60 initiative, which pushes kids to take advantage of various opportunities to be physically fit. On Tuesday, Buccaneer players linebacker Quincy Black, defensive end Michael Bennett, safety Cody Grimm and wide receiver Maurice Stovall visited Just Elementary to celebrate the donation of equipment and promote health and fitness.
"I think they are going to enjoy it, enjoy using them," said Black. "Any time you get new toys, you want to get out and play and sometimes they don't have the necessary equipment to do that. With the NFL and Hometown Huddle, it helps ease the process of getting kids out playing while at the same time keeping them educated about fitness and health."
Established by the NFL and United Way in 1999, Hometown Huddle is an annual league-wide initiative that provides players, coaches and staff the opportunity to participate in community service activities. On October 19, representatives from the majority of NFL teams took part in outreach activities in their community.
In Tampa, that meant tossing spirals on the football field and shooting hoops on the blacktop, as the players, as well as Buccaneers Cheerleaders and team mascot Captain Fear, gathered with more than 120 elementary school students to participate in sports games and activities. For this year's event, the team donated much-needed athletic equipment to Just Elementary School, including a wide range of sports balls, athletic supplies and even a Nintendo Wii Fitness system.
"It feels good to be a part of this because I know the Bucs are known for helping the community," said Bennett. "I'm just glad I can do this and help the kids out."
As Bennett led children through football drills out on the field, Stovall practiced his jump shot on the basketball court, entertaining constant requests for a one-on-one challenge. Meanwhile, Black and Grimm gathered on opposite sides of a new volleyball net, setting the ball for the students in attempt to score a winning spike on the competing team. Other kids perfected their soccer skills on another side of the field, competing in dribbling drills and relay races as Buccaneers staff cheered them on.
While sports were the focus on court, cheerleading was all the hype on the sidelines, as young girls rallied around the Bucs' cheerleaders. Laughter and noise flowed throughout the schoolyard, emanating from children and Buccaneer visitors alike.
"We're just so excited that today, in conjunction with United Way, the Buccaneers came to teach our kids how important it is to have a healthy lifestyle," said Carolyn Hill, principal of Just Elementary. "The exercise, the right foods to eat, all these things are of critical importance to have a good life and they've given us so much PE equipment that we really, really needed."
The Buccaneers also incorporated the NFL and National Dairy Council's Fuel Up To Play 60 initiative by providing healthy snacks to the participating youth.
"It simply enhances our program," added Hill. "Health is so critically important, the First Lady Michelle Obama has embraced it. We know that in order to be athletes you have to be healthy, and any way we can instill it in our kids how critically important it is to grow up with healthy habits [the better], because once they get older, we know that it's kind of hard to embrace or adopt those habits. So we want them to learn how to eat right and have the physical activities in their lives. What you've done today will make it a lot easier to implement those types of programs at our school."
Joined by Buccaneers players, cheerleaders and staff were volunteers from United Way of Tampa Bay, a local chapter of the national nonprofit which promotes the importance of community service throughout the world. A partner of the NFL, United Way works closely with the Buccaneers to create events and opportunities like Hometown Huddle that have an impact in the community.
"The partnership that we have with the Bucs and the NFL, in general, really allows us to connect kids, families, schools and other community partnerships with our United Way work and the work that [the Buccaneers] do in the community so that kids that need it the most are getting the resources they need," said Diana Baker, president and CEO of United Way Tampa Bay.
Another theme present throughout Tuesday's event was "Live United', a slogan adopted by the United Way to promote volunteering. As many United Way employees and volunteers, including Baker, sported white "Live United" t-shirts, it was evident that the collaborative efforts of those in attendance were making a difference.
"I see kids who know that they are in a school that cares about them, surrounded by teachers and administrators that care about them," said Baker. "Hopefully, what they are seeing in our partnership is the community coming to care about them. So we saw kids play football, soccer, basketball and volleyball today with the equipment that came through the NFL Foundation Grant and that is a message to the kids that we care about them, that we care about their educational pursuit, their hope and their well being in the community. The partnerships just make it very sweet."
For the rookie Grimm, the chance to spend the afternoon outdoors and enjoy the brand new equipment was a no-brainer.
"Any time you can get out and give back to the community a little bit, see how much fun the kids are having, really makes it time well spent," said Grimm. "Shooting brand new basketballs and all that, they really were having a great time out there. Everyone was active; I didn't see anyone sitting on the side, anyone just chatting with their friend. Everyone was involved and that's awesome."
For the students at Just Elementary, a public school where the majority of students receive free or reduced-price lunch, the event was a memorable one.
"Our kids don't get very many opportunities because they are economically disadvantaged," said Hill. "Any time that we have [the Buccaneers] come in or any other organizations come in, it makes a great impact."