Sophomore soccer player Bre Bembenek says she thought it was “a little bit strange” when in her first week as a student athlete at York College her team was invited to the home of a faculty member for dinner. “I’d never had a family welcome my whole team in like that,” said Bembenek. “But once I got to know them, it’s just been awesome. I love coming to their house. It’s a home and a family I feel welcomed in.”
Bembenek and teammates were hosted by Sarah Van Gomple, assistant professor of education, who is in her second year as chaplain for the women’s soccer program. The Van Gomple family has surrounded the players to support them in numerous ways, from providing them with frequent meals and a place to do homework and hang out, to relationship advice, to spiritual guidance, to a cheering section at the games.
“We’ve gotten to know their entire family, their boys and dog,” added team captain Elizabeth Ryan. “We always know that if we are struggling, we can come to them. Mrs. Van Gomple meets with the team captains often and we talk about how the team is doing. She makes sure everything is going well. She’s always there for us. ”
Each sports team at York College has a volunteer chaplain from outside the athletic department. These dedicated volunteers are faculty and staff members, alumni, and community supporters. They provide an added measure of love and concern for student athletes, making sure that they have what they need to be successful, on and off the field.
“The program closely aligns with our mission because you have that spiritual transformation dimension, but it’s more than that,” said Van Gomple. “When you’re talking about transformation, you’re talking about coming full circle to develop the person.” Van Gomple recently completed a book study with the women’s soccer players about body image and healthy attitudes. The family also hosts devos and fellowship meals at their home. They’ve had three students baptized in their hot tub, and countless others stop by for a chat or a prayer, and some de-stress time snuggling with their dog, watching a movie, playing ping pong, or just hanging out in a family setting.
This relationship is especially important since the team’s coach is male, said Van Gomple. “It’s nice for them to have a female support person to talk through things they may not feel comfortable talking to their coach about.” The team is currently going through a coaching transition and Van Gomple’s role will provide needed consistency to the program as she helps the team adjust to a new coach and dynamic.
Beyond the soccer players, being a team chaplain has helped Van Gomple get to know all kinds of people. “It’s been a window into the student body. The girls bring their friends, their boyfriends...sometimes even their parents. The parents are so thankful for this support for their students,” she said.
Wrestling, with God
Dr. Terry Kite, professor of physics, is the chaplain for the men’s wrestling team. A grandfatherly cheerleader, he’s also been adopted by the women’s wrestling team. He loves track and field, and so also mentors those players. “I’m part of their lives,” he said. “They look for me in chapel. We joke together. They expect a hug every time we see each other.” Kite leads prayers before meets for the wrestling programs, “to keep God in the center of things,” but he sees the wrestling and track programs and athletes as being “fairly religious” already, so he views his role as less ministerial and more encouragement. He challenges students to be their best in competition and in life. “I try to never be anything but complimentary,” he said, “but I do push them a little bit.”
Kite is often on the road to attend meets and traveled cross country with the women’s wrestling team to an event in California this spring. Kite describes himself as a major sports enthusiast with a heart for the students. He often mentors them about their sport (“I try to not get in the way of the coaches,” he notes) as well as life. Sometimes there are jealousies or conflicts within a team and its helpful for an outsider with experience to advise. He talks them through social issues and team dynamics. “I want them to be a great team. I want them to support one another,” he said.
Ultimately, the mission of the chaplaincy program is “to provide another resource for students to grow in faith,” said Dr. Sam Garner, vice president for spiritual development. The program was in existence when he came to YC four years ago, but not every team had a chaplain and their efforts were inconsistent across the department. Garner has strengthened the program, providing additional support for the chaplains and coaches. The group now meets regularly for lunch to check in. “We meet to share stories, ask for advice,” said Garner. “Those gatherings have become important times when the coaches share what’s really on their hearts and we pray about it. The chaplains and coaches have become a close community of people that are trying to look out for the students and be there and be available for what they need.”
Garner is hoping to add more chaplains to the larger programs like basketball and baseball to make sure students are getting individual attention and chaplains aren’t overwhelmed. There may also be an opportunity to add chaplains for the arts programs at YC, but that concept is still evolving.
Boots, Buckles and Basketball
Amy and C.C. Vernon’s involvement in the chaplaincy program started five years ago when they moved to York from Oklahoma. They were looking for a way to build community and get involved. At East Hill Church of Christ they signed up with the Adopt-a-Student program and were paired with two basketball players. “That’s where the basketball connection first started. We love basketball. We love cheering for the boys,” said Amy. Eventually, their role grew to encompass the whole team.
There was an initial hurdle to overcome, though. “We don’t look like the basketball boys,” said Amy. “We wear boots and big belt buckles.” During the interview, they were on the road hauling a trailer of horses to a rodeo. These surface differences meant that it took a little time for the Vernons to prove their legitimacy to the team. “They had to learn to accept that we were there just to love them. We didn’t want anything back.”
It’s not all warm fuzzies, though. The Vernons hold the players to a high standard in life and academics. They ride them if they miss chapel, fail to turn in homework, or end up in disciplinary situations. It’s all done with love, though. “We have told the boys from the get go, if you’re in a situation that you need help out of and it would be easier to call us then to call a York College employee, like a coach...we’re probably still going to talk to you about what you’ve done and you’ll suffer the consequences, but always know you can pick up the phone and call. We’re going to help you.” Not being employed by the college is big for the relationship, says Amy. “Sometimes they’re a little more at ease and willing to let their guard down. They’ll be real with us about what’s going on in their lives.”
The relationship is a two-way street. “It does just as much for us as I hope it does for them,” said Amy. “Those boys are big brothers to my kids. They are a family away from home for us, because we don’t have family here.” That relationship doesn’t end at graduation. Amy gets emotional talking about a particular player who graduated a few years ago whom she still keeps in touch with. “He’s grown so much. He made a lot of bad choices in his first couple of years at YC. I thought the coach was going to wring his neck.” Today, Amy says she’s beyond proud of the man he is becoming.
She’s not the only one who can see the benefit of these mentoring relationships. “I’m really excited that so many people have jumped into this program not knowing exactly what to expect but have just simply offered themselves to the coaches and the student athletes,” said Garner. “I’m seeing a lot of lives changing because of those relationships. It’s more than I would have asked for.”
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