Villagers solving economic hurdles for Wildwood track team

What separates a first place finisher from an also-ran?

“For students of Wildwood Middle High School’s Prep Track Club, that difference is not the lack of an abundance of skill or an unwavering passion. Rather, it’s the lack of proper athletic uniforms and running shoes, as well as inadequate track and field equipment,” said Lisa McKay, of the Village of Lake Deaton. “In addition, many of these students compete against others who daily must battle food insufficiency.”

Villagers David McKay and Susan Bakke distribute meals to members of Wildwood Middle High School’s Prep Track Club recently.

These Wildwood students attend a school system where 90 percent of their classmates come from families living below federal poverty guidelines. Fortunately for them, Lisa and her husband, David, along with many of their fellow Villagers, have launched a campaign to provide these athletes with after-school meals, clothing and the equipment to level the proverbial playing field. Their “Brown Bag” program began soon after they met Robby Strickland, a Wildwood track coach, and some members of his team.

“We wanted to help support them, and soon discovered that their biggest need was proper nutrition. Like many other Wildwood students, the school-provided lunches are their primary meals of the day,” Lisa said. “We found out that the coach was spending his own money to buy bread and peanut butter for sandwiches that they would distribute after practice.”

Last October, the couple began providing about 15 bags – each filled with sandwiches, fruit and drinks – every week following each team practice. As word of their commitment became known, neighbors, including members of the Lake Deaton and Baby Boomers South social clubs, took up the cause.

Wildwood Middle High School senior Andrew Cromwell, left, offers seventh-grader Sharef Jackson some tips on proper starting-block techniques.

By January, 50 volunteers were preparing and delivering 200 meals a week, at an approximate cost of $72 a day. And others were soliciting in-kind donations from local grocery stores and other vendors.

“I feel these kids don’t have what they need to succeed,” said Susan Bakke, of Lake Deaton, one of the first neighbors to participate in the initiative. “We are so blessed to be able to give back. The kids are committed to making practice every day. We want to show them our support and make a difference.”

In response, team members have been demonstrating their on-field abilities. The 11 members and their coaches recently returned from the Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Several finished unexpectedly high in their respective competitions.

“The students did great, considering the magnitude of the obstacles they face every day,” Lisa said. “This was a strong statement about the team’s ability and determination. They were like the ‘Bad News Bears’ and pulled out strong finishes right out of the hat.”

Previously, team members had competed against 16 other schools at the District Finals held in Gainesville, and they took first place in overall points.

“The team had been struggling,” Strickland said. “What has significantly helped has been the attention paid by the Villagers and the kids’ improved nutrition.

“Our highest priority is to obtain a pole vault and related equipment and install the pits. The cost will be between $10,000 and $12,000,” Strickland said. “Wildwood hasn’t had a pole vault program since I was a student here 20 years ago. The team has to travel to other schools to compete because Wildwood doesn’t have adequate facilities and equipment.”

Coach Robby Strickland evaluates the ‘lead-leg’ form for his son, Jessie, who competes in the 300-meter hurdles competition.

Strickland has been the team’s volunteer coach for the past three years. He’s at the field every day, taking time away from his business, Wildwood Auctions and Estate Services.

The Villagers are responding to the team’s needs by expanding their focus to purchase equipment for the team and track shoes for the students. Their goal is to raise $25,000.

They created a dynamic GoFundMe Page under the direction of Lake Deaton residents Jim Leib, Carmine Filloramo and Cathy McMullen, who have expertise in videography, photography and grant writing. The site features an emotional video about the team.

The link to the GoFundMe page is https://www.gofundme.com/wildwood-mid-high-track-club

“We are so very thankful to our friends and neighbors who have taken up this vital cause,” Lisa said. “The Wildwood Prep Track Club is much more than an after-school activity. The coaches sincerely care about their students. Not only are they teaching proper athletic techniques but are coaching them about what is important off the field – from their studies to their long-term goals. This is what is important in life.”

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