For Carla MacLeod, character development and community engagement are part of the DNA of her teams. After winning a gold medal as a member of the 2006 Canadian Women’s Olympic Hockey Team (she won another gold in 2010), Carla had many opportunities to become involved in community initiatives. She embraced volunteering and was inspired by the positive impact she could have by giving back.
When she began as Head Coach of Edge School’s Female Prep Hockey Team in 2014, it was important for Carla to share this opportunity with her players. She had been involved with the Hockey Education Reaching Out Society (HEROS) in the past and a partnership with HEROS and her Edge team seemed like a great fit.
A volunteer-driven charity, HEROS uses the game of ice hockey to teach life-skills and empower marginalized youth. Working with HEROS Executive Director, Kevin Hodgson, Carla and her teams have developed a partnership that Kevin describes as “absolute gold.” He explains, “Carla and the girls have made a real investment, an investment of their time and an investment in role-modelling healthy friendships.”
This investment has certainly helped dozens of youth in the HEROS program over the past four years. The impact on Edge students and alumni is also profound and several alumni have built on their HEROS connection after graduation.
“I came to Edge in large part because I loved what Carla was offering,” explains Bethan Wilson (Class of 2016). “She was all about the growth of the team and growth of girls as people.”
Now in her third year at Carlton University, Bethan has been working with Kevin Hodgson to investigate an outdoor rink HEROS program in Ottawa. She says, “HEROS gave me an opportunity to experience the game I love in a different way. It strengthens your connection with the community and opens your eyes to see what hockey is in a broader sense – to have fun and learn important lessons for life.”
Daria O’Neill (Class of 2015) has a similar perspective. After graduating from Edge, Daria attended the University of Vermont. As a member of the UVM Women’s Hockey Team, she became involved with Team IMPACT, a national nonprofit organization that connects children with serious and chronic illnesses with college athletic teams. Through this experience she met Kayla, a child with special needs, whose mother had developed an organization called Kayla’s Directory to enrich the lives of Vermont’s special needs children.
“Volunteering was an important part of my experience in Vermont,” Daria explains. “When I was at Edge, we were on the ice every month with HEROS children. Having kids look up to you is so rewarding and it was something that I wanted to continue after I graduated.”
Now back in Calgary studying at Mount Royal University, Daria has reconnected with the HEROS program. “When Kevin Hodgson came to MRU to introduce Super HEROS this year, I was excited to be involved.”
A new initiative for HEROS Hockey, the Super HEROS program provides a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment to youth with cognitive challenges, including Autism and Down Syndrome. Daria was involved with the program from the start. “The first day, if we got the kids dressed in their hockey equipment it would be a huge accomplishment,” Daria explains. “To see the children become part of a team, gaining confidence, and being more involved socially has such an impact with the Super HEROS families. The parents are often in tears.”
As with the Edge School HEROS program, consistency and familiarity are important factors for Super HEROS children. Daria is on the ice every Sunday morning at 7:30 with her Super HEROS group. It’s a big commitment, but extremely rewarding. As Daria says, “at the end of the day, I think we feel even better than the kids.”
For Carla MacLeod, this feeling and the impact on HEROS children and their Edge School mentors is about relationships. “The human connection is the biggest take away,” she explains. “The girls take pride in being HEROS buddies. Each year at graduation ceremonies they often comment about how participating with HEROS was a highlight of their Edge experience.”
As Bethan and Daria show, the impact of the program goes far beyond Edge, as alumni continue to value and build these human connections in their new communities.