Thunder Bay·Audio

Lakehead University athletes share passion for sport with First Nations kids

Lakehead University and Wasaya Airways are teaming up for a program that brings student athletes to remote First Nations communities.

Hockey, basketball, volleyball, wrestling, cross-country ski, and track & field team members host clinics

Natasha Frank, a third-year nursing student at Lakehead University and member of the track and cross-country teams, is taking part of the Reach Up! program, which reaches out to First Nations youth. (Cathy Alex/CBC)
Lakehead University and Wasaya Airways are teaming up again to bring student athletes to remote First Nations communities.. We'll hear from one young woman about what the athletes learn, while sharing their passion for sport

Lakehead University and Wasaya Airways are teaming up for a program that brings student athletes to remote First Nations communities.

University president Brian Stevenson said the athletes host sports clinics and act as mentors to local coaches and young people — but the "Reach Up!" program can also be a transformative experience for the varsity athletes.
Lakehead University president Brian Stevenson says the Reach Up! program can be a transformative experience for varisty athletes. (Cathy Alex/CBC)

"They experience the warmth and the welcome of the communities. They talk to the children," he said.

"So when they came back, they came and told us that this was a great experience for them, even though they went up to try to talk about Lakehead and about athletic issues."

Another goal of the program is to encourage young people to continue their studies at Lakehead University, Stevenson said.

'Opportunity for hope'

The president and CEO of Wasaya Airways said the program is a great opportunity for the young people in First Nations communities.

"We are 100 per cent owned by 13 First Nations communities and this gives [them a chance] ... to experience a senior level of athletics that they would otherwise not be able to see," Michael Rodyniuk said.
Michael Rodyniuk, president and CEO of Wasaya Airways, says the Reach Up! programs offers First Nations youth the chance to get active in sports. (Cathy Alex/CBC)

"It also provides them with some opportunity for hope, and something that they can achieve and work towards. Excellence in a certain sport, of which Lakehead University offers a tremendous variety."

Natasha Frank, a third year nursing student at Lakehead, and a member of track and cross-country running teams, participated in the "Reach Up!" program.

"This program is very important in engaging young people to participate in organized sports," she said.

She told CBC News she didn't get much exposure to organized sport until she was about 12, when she moved from her First Nation to Thunder Bay.

"If I wasn't engaged at that time by an LU athlete, coincidentally in Thunder Bay, telling me I was good at doing push-ups, I probably wouldn't have pursued sport," Frank said.

"So imagine what it's like for children in northern communities, and an athlete comes to them and says 'Hey, you're really fast. Hey, you're really good at this. Hey, you're really good at wrestling.' That has a huge impact on them, for their future and to spark that fire in them to go after their dreams."

The Reach Up! program introduces children in remote First Nations communities to the idea of pursuing their sports and education dreams. A partnership between Lakehead University and Wasaya Airways, mentors encourage kids to dream big and perhaps have "another Jordin Tootoo come from one of our communities." Tootoo plays for the NHL's New Jersey Devils. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

The program is a very valuable experience for the student athlete, Frank continued.

"A lot of the people I talk to after, they are so surprised that we're so close to communities that are so secluded and have very little. That's just mind boggling for a lot of people, especially if you're from southern Ontario and there's towns everywhere and it's no big problem to get groceries."

Providing these budding athletes with opportunity is key, Rodyniuk added.

"So for our young people in the communities, it provides them an opportunity to participate, get active and, at the same time, who knows, we could have another [NHL player like] Jordin Tootoo come from one of our communities," he said.

The program will visit four communities this year. Nibinamik First Nation has already confirmed its participation.