One Saturday morning, the Indiana University team played a game of basketball against the Michigan State University team in a Grove Street gym a few blocks from Northwestern. As the players raced back and forth across the court, their coach, a tall, red-haired woman, offered pointers and advice.
The woman, Medill freshman Brenna Clairr O’Tierney, has spent the past year volunteering at the McGaw YMCA’s youth athletic program. She coaches kindergartners and first-graders in basketball and soccer.
This quarter’s program, which started April 19, includes about 100 children, ages 6 to 12, from Evanston/Skokie School District 65. The players are split up by age and placed in co-ed “Big Ten” teams with either one or two coaches. Each team practices half an hour and then plays an unscored game for the remaining 30 minutes.
O’Tierney is one of about 120 NU student coaches this year and 24 this quarter, said YMCA Volunteer Coordinator Terri Michaels.
NU and the YMCA have maintained a partnership for at least five years, Michaels said. Besides coaching, students are involved with tutoring and the Project SOAR mentorship program.
“Northwestern students have played an incredibly significant role here at the Y,” she said. “They definitely bring more energy than adults, and because they are closer in age, they serve as great role models for the kids.”
O’Tierney, who was a Special Olympics coach in high school, said she missed working with kids when she came to NU. When she heard about the opportunity at the YMCA, she signed up to coach soccer in the fall and has since coached basketball during Winter and Spring quarters.
O’Tierney organizes her practices around appropriate drills that will improve specific skills like passing while also trying to make the game fun, she said.
“A lot of the kids have never played before and don’t know the rules,” she said. “Their ability to focus is a lot more limited than older kids’.”
But dealing with parents is the toughest part of the job, she said.
“Sometimes parents can get mean and pressure their kids,” she said. “It gets tricky because you don’t know the boundaries between making them feel better and respecting their parents’ wishes.”
Weinberg sophomore Tom Evans said he started coaching at the YMCA because he didn’t feel like he contributed enough to the community surrounding campus.
“So many people in frats and sororities do philanthropy events, but I feel like there’s a distinct difference between just raising money for an event and actually interacting with the people you are helping,” he said.
Being responsible for children helped him become more mature, Evans said.
“It really gives you a sense of going out and doing something with your life,” he said.
O’Tierney said she is hoping her volunteer work at the YMCA will lead to a position next year as a paid employee, a step that happens frequently, Michaels said.
“When there is an interest on their end and an opening on our end, it’s really the perfect avenue for a position here,” she said.
O’Tierney said her volunteer work has been both fulfilling and eye-opening.
“I’ve realized how time-consuming it would be to be a full-time parent,” she said. “I’m only with these kids for an hour, and it’s a lot of work. But at the same time, I love that they look up to me as a role model. And after each game, the hugs I get from the kids make it all worth it.”