Destiny Discover
St. Mary’s football team twins with Grande Prairie Warriors in youth exchange

This summer’s Olympic Games regaled the world with stories of courage and inspiration, most poignantly the Canadian women’s soccer team’s rebound from a heart-breaking loss to the U.S. for a bronze medal in the last minutes of their game against France.

It’s that kind of determination and courage in the face of adversity that speaks to the developmental value of sport, says Patrick J. Daly, Chairperson for the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board. “Sports build character.”

That ideal was demonstrated in October 2011 when four members of the Grande Prairie high school football team were killed and one seriously injured in an automobile accident only days before the regional championship. Adopting an attitude of forgiveness and compassion, the team went on to win the regional title as a tribute to their fellow team mates.

Their story of courage and resiliency was the impetus for a youth cultural exchange between Grande Prairie Composite School in Alberta and St. Mary Catholic Secondary School in Hamilton this August, which brought together members of the two schools’ football teams for ten days of intense football training and activities, dialogue and sightseeing.

St. Mary coaches Nick Lazar and Sean Dennison contacted Grande Prairie Principal and Coach Rick Gilson with the idea of an exchange in February 2012. “His outlook on sports mirrored ours,” they explained. “We love football.”

“More importantly, we are acutely aware that we are helping to produce young men who will be our future community leaders,” indicated Lazar. “What they learn about themselves in the face of adversity will help shape their tomorrows.”

The tragedy in Grande Prairie not only brought out the best in the team, but helped the players transition from boys to men, he said.

“It’s the awesomely great and awesomely sad things in life that often bring us together,” mused Dennison, adding that the exchange was an opportunity for the boys from both teams to form new friendships.

“One of the greatest things in life is getting to meet people.”

The people aren’t so different, noted Josh Ouellette, a two-year member of the Grande Prairie Warriors. “The people here have been really welcoming. They just accept you for who you are.”

The student exchange was made possible through SEVEC (Society for Educational Visits and Exchanges in Canada), an organization that promotes understanding of and appreciation for Canada’s geographic and cultural diversity through education and travel.

The exchange kicked off in Hamilton with St. Mary playing host to 40 members and 6 coaches from the Grande Prairie Warriors varsity football team. The 5-day itinerary included a welcome banquet at St. Mary School, trips to Niagara Falls and Toronto, football sessions, football practices and a wrap-up exhibition game at Ivor Wynne Stadium. Thirty-five members of the St. Mary’s Crusaders returned with the Grande Prairie team for week two of the exchange where they had an opportunity to experience western Canada and participate in a Northern Lights Bowl Game.

Commending Principal Emidio Piccioni and Coaches Lazar and Dennison for arranging the exchange, Chairperson Patrick Daly said that the experience will have a positive impact on the players, both at St. Mary and Grande Prairie.

“We believe in the value of cultural exchanges to build character and promote understanding, sport, love of country and love of each other,” added Director of Education Patricia Amos.

“Our hope is that this exchange will be one where memories and friendships are forged,” said St. Mary’s Principal Emidio Piccioni.

Unmistakeable memories like “the smell of the grass, the referee’s whistle, the click of cleats on the pavement, the elation of victory, the sorrow of defeat, and most importantly, the feeling of being part of a team.”

The learning and relationships that come from playing sports stay with you a lifetime, he noted.

“They’re part of what you experience in life when you’re successful. So many employers are looking for team players, people who can work together and build on each other’s strengths.”

It’s basic football strategy, nodded Chaplaincy Leader Don Hall. “An offensive end always runs to where the ball is going to be.”

“My hope for you is that you will always be there for each other,” he challenged the boys.

Taking to the turf for team practice session
Taking to the turf for team practice session

St. Mary’s football team twins with Grande Prairie Warriors in youth exchange
St. Mary’s football team twins with Grande Prairie Warriors in youth exchange
St. Mary’s football team twins with Grande Prairie Warriors in youth exchange
St. Mary’s football team twins with Grande Prairie Warriors in youth exchange
St. Mary’s football team twins with Grande Prairie Warriors in youth exchange