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JWU-Sophia Academy Alliance: ‘it’s about Knowing the Possibility exists
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It has officially been dubbed Johnson & Wales University-Sophia Academy Project SHE (Sports Health Education). But it’s so much more. The entire operation of the Sophia Academy, a small, private school for middle school-aged girls, moves to JWU’s Harborside Campus for one day a week. From regular lesson plans to extended gym time to special presentations, Sophia’s Fridays at JWU not only give the 60 Sophia students the privilege of being on a university campus each week, they also give JWU students a community service experience with enormous impact.

The collaboration began as an innovative thought that gained instant momentum. Sports/Entertainment/Events/Management (SEE) professor, Kathy Drohan M.A.T. ’04, assembled a meeting of the minds in the athletics office at the Harborside Recreation Center: JWU ice hockey coach, Erik Noack, who also heads the Athletic Department’s Community Outreach programming; Jennifer Rowan, Feinstein Center service learning coordinator; and Sophia Academy head of school, Gigi DiBello.

Since the academy has no space for physical education, the group proposed use of the Harborside Recreation Center’s two gyms. But the idea grew larger, and by September 2008, Sophia was granted use of classroom space, the gym, and virtually everything it needed for students to spend the entire day at the Harborside Campus.

Several of the university’s women’s athletic teams jumped in and offered help during Sophia’s phys ed class teaching soccer, volleyball, softball or basketball to the girls, many of whom had no previous exposure to team sports. They also offered something else: mentorship.

The Academy’s students are Providence residents aged nine to 14. Many live in single-parent, female-headed households and all are from economically challenged environments. They are a diverse group — 64 percent of the students are Latina, 19 percent are African-American, 15 percent are multiracial, one percent are African refugees, three are Asian-American, one is Caucasian. The impact that college athletes have had on the younger students is immeasurable.

“It’s all about relationships with kids, mutual respect, discipline, rigor, skills, teamwork and leadership,” says DiBello. “These kids have absolutely no way of knowing the benefits ahead. It’s not about learning to become a great player; it’s about knowing the possibility exists.”

Positive Choices
Members of the women’s soccer team were the first to see just what it meant for the youngsters from the Academy to become exposed to JWU on a weekly basis. Working with Sophia Academy physical education instructor, Janine Musto ’88, they were the first of the mentoring teams, and struck an immediate chord with their charges. Musto and DiBello quickly became fans.

“When Sophia’s girls begin to see themselves as being on a college campus, it doesn’t feel so other-worldly,” says DiBello, “They begin to think, ‘I can be part of this.”

The project’s goals reach far beyond introduction to a campus situation. Activities expose students to a more healthy, active lifestyle and encourage intellectual and physical exploration. They are taught to make positive individual choices in exercise, nutrition and mental health.

JWU students involved gain too, learning about the needs in the surrounding community, the challenges and rewards that come from working with youth and ways to apply skills to a real-life situation.

Involvement reaches beyond the realm athletics. SEE major, junior Nicole Pineo, commited to service learning, has been part and parcel of the project nearly since its inception. “She’s had her hands in practically everything about the program, from the development of the schedule, to the weekly programming logistics, to the development of the assistance plan and lesson plans for her fellow SEE majors or the athletes who take part in the work needed to produce the Friday programming,” says Drohan, who sees the entire project in metaphoric terms as the development of a garden.

A Garden Grows
“The seeds were planted by that core group last summer. Gigi [DiBello] provided the water; the athletics department provided fertilizer,” Drohan says. “Jen Rowan weeded the program. Nicole provided the needed sunshine. Our CSL and SEE majors provided the ‘pollen’ through their hard work. The athletic teams who got the Sophia kids hooked on sports, are the roots. The staff and students of the academy are the flowers.”

A typical Friday begins with breakfast and a meeting. Students break into separate groups at 9 a.m. Some head to classrooms at the Harborside Academic Center; others go to the recreation center for gym classes. After lunch, study groups continue academics and are tutored one-on-one.

Each day ends with an hour-long team building activity. Though Sophia’s day is complete at 3:15 p.m., those JWU students working on the project have time to jot notes in a reflection journal, which will be used to garner their community service learning credit.

DiBello reflects on the program’s evolution. “The stars aligned,” she says, “and it extended our resources more than I would have imagined.” An ingenious idea rippled into an ideal situation for everyone.