Philanthropy, Professional Athletes, Sports Leagues

Using Lacrosse to Empower Indigenous Youth

We say this a lot, but it’s true: Sport has the power to make meaningful and positive change in communities around the world. Earlier this year, the National Lacrosse League (NLL) announced they were extending their partnership with Right To Play, an organization that aims to protect, educate and empower youth through play and sport. The partnership aims to increase awareness of Right To Play and to raise money for local programming benefitting youth in Indigenous communities.

We spoke to National Lacrosse League Commissioner Nick Sakiewicz and Right To Play’s Director of Canada Programs, Rose Lipton, to learn more about the partnership and how the organizations are using lacrosse to benefit Indigenous youth in Canada.

The Connection Between Lacrosse and Indigenous Youth

For those that aren’t familiar with the history of lacrosse, the sport was first played by Indigenous peoples in the US and Canada. “Some people might not know that lacrosse has strong links to First Nations peoples and cultures across Turtle Island (North America),” explains Lipton. “It is often referred to as the Creator’s Game.”

The NLL is the largest lacrosse league in the world, with 13 teams and a global audience for their games. Sakiewicz echoes Lipton’s comments on the history of lacrosse. “The sport we play is the sport of Indigenous people,” he says. “It has a great history and great heritage. That heritage ties in really well with our mission and our sport, what we do.”

Right To Play and the NLL have been working together since 2012 and their work has benefited more than 1600 indigenous children since that time through league, team and player campaigns.

Sakiewicz explains that the mission and goals of Right to Play are in line with the goals of the NLL. “This partnership fits well with our two missions: growing the sport of lacrosse and supporting the community.” He adds, “We believe our sport can teach a lot of lessons.”

“Asking the National Lacrosse League to join us seemed like a natural fit,” says Lipton. “When we bring together the fun and skill of a game kids love, with the teachings that elders and other cultural teachers can bring in by sharing the history of the game, Indigenous youth have an incredible pathway to exploring their own identities.”  

Implementing the Partnership and Measuring Success

The NLL currently has player champions from 11 of their 13 teams that participate in fundraising activities to raise money for Right To Play. From March 22nd-24th, players donated jerseys for an autographed jersey auction. The league’s Player Champions also promote Right To Play by raising awareness and funds on social media. Through those two activations alone, the NLL has raised over $7,000. On March 29th, the league held a lacrosse celebration at Nusdeh Yoh school in Prince George, BC, the first public school with an Indigenous-centric in the province.

Lipton emphasized the opportunity for the NLL to spread Right To Play’s message to a new audience and the fundraising support for Indigenous youth programs like their PLAY initiative.

“PLAY” stands for Promoting Life-Skills for Aboriginal Youth, and the program partners with Indigenous communities and urban organizations across Canada. These organizations hire and train local youth workers, called “Community Mentors,” to deliver after-school programming for young people. Activities include games, sports, arts activities, cooking and much more.

The program also offers sport-for-development clinics for children with specific interests in sports like lacrosse and hockey to come together and play. “The overall goals of these programs are to promote holistic health and well-being of youth and communities,” explains Lipton.

When it comes to measuring success for the Right To Play partnership, Sakiewicz explains that he’s most concerned about the number of kids the partnership helps rather than the amount of money raised. The league receives annual reports from Right to Play on the impact the partnership is creating, and it’s always well-received. “While it’s important to measure the amount of money we raise, the most important thing is the fact that they are impacting thousands and thousands of kids’ lives across the world,” explains Sakiewicz.

From Right To Play’s perspective, Lipton explains that their model focuses on community self-determination and youth-voice. “That means Indigenous youth having the chance to define success for themselves,” she says.

The organization has heard from youth and communities that there is a big desire to reconnect with Indigenous cultures and to see an increase in opportunities for youth leadership. “In these areas, 73% of the communities we work with see their children and youth develop a greater interest in their culture and history. 82% see an increase in youth taking on leadership roles,” shares Lipton.

Right To Play also works with the Sport and Social Club in Canada, an organization that helps organize adults looking to join recreational sports leagues. Lipton adds, “We are building a movement across Canada to help children rise up through play, so any other potential sports partners who want to get involved are more than welcome.”

Raising Brand Awareness While Doing Good

Sakiewicz shares that in addition to the partnership with Right To Play, the league is exploring other opportunities for philanthropic partnerships with organizations connected to lacrosse. He prefaces that the league doesn’t want to have too much of a divided focus. He explains, “When we get involved with an organization like Right To Play, we want to do it in an absolutely first-class way.”

Sakiewicz highlights organizations like Harlem Lacrosse and the Headstrong Foundation that the NLL has worked with and continues to support. “We’re growing our philanthropic impact as much as much as we can with the resources we have right now,” he explains.

Teams in the NLL have their own local philanthropic initiatives, something Sakiewicz and the NLL encourage from the league level. From social media to promotion on their in-game broadcast platform with Bleacher Report Live (B/R Live), the league works to highlight what the teams are doing in the community.

The Toronto Rock hosted their first Pride Night with the Rock in February, after working with organizations like You Can Play and The 519 to grow the sport of lacrosse within the LGBTQ community. “Our teams are really the center point of the activity we do in the individual communities and the league office at the NLL likes to support every one of them,” says Sakiewicz.

When we spoke to Sakiewicz about the biggest challenge the NLL faces, his response was that there are simply not enough hours in the day to accomplish all of their goals. The league aims to grow to 16 teams and bring in new markets to the sport, plus continue to grow their partnership with B/R Live on television, a partnership that experienced a growth in viewership of 10 times from the previous year.

“Probably one of greatest challenges we face is just growing the lacrosse audience, but we’re doing that,” Sakiewicz says. “We’re doing that every day on social media and we’re doing that every day with our viewing audience that’s tuning into Bleacher Report Live to watch our games.” It’s safe to say that they are also growing a lacrosse audience through their philanthropic programs with Right to Play.

“We think that by doing good things that are good for the community, good for children and the next generation, it’s going to make us a good corporate citizen not just in the lacrosse world but the world in general,” shares Sakiewicz.

Sakiewicz is proud of the work that NLL teams and owners do in investing back into their community. “That’s what sports teams are supposed to do,” he says. He goes on to highlight the importance of giving back to the local community in not only growing the team’s voice in local marketplaces but more importantly in amplifying the voice of the charities with whom they associate.

Sakiewicz concludes, “Each and every day our teams are operating in local markets and making a difference in the community. If just one person is positively impacted by that work, then it’s all well worth it.”

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