Motivated to Serve

(PHOTO BY ELLIE BOGUE)

A sporting chance

Lifetime Sports Academy celebrates 15 years

By Bonnie Blackburn
It’s been 15 years since Tom Hogan walked into an interview room and faced the people who would soon offer him a job that has changed the lives of thousands of area children.

“It was frightening,” Hogan said, “to be a part of making this vision come true.”

The vision was of a free, open-to-anyone sports program that would teach kids golf, tennis and swimming and would help them become better adults as they learned teamwork and ambition and sportsmanship.

The Lifetime Sports Academy marks 15 years this summer. Fifteen years of hot afternoons spent in McMillen Park, learning the fundamentals of sports many children have never tried before. Children aged 8 to 18 can participate in the program, which is free to all participants. The academy is supported by the Fort Wayne Sports Corporation, which raises funds and is the umbrella group for the academy.

It was the dream of the late Tom Jehl to create such an experience for area children. He and a handful of others, including former Public Safety Director Payne Brown and Rick Hemsoth, the city’s golf pro, shaped the idea, gathered supporters together and hired Hogan, a coach at Wayne High School. More than 10,000 children had attended the academy before Jehl died of cancer in September 2006.

But long before his death, the program flourished under Jehl’s leadership. First things first, McMillen Park needed new tennis courts. Hogan said Jehl took a look at the courts, said, “this has to be better” and got the money together. Boom, new courts.

“He got it going right away,” Hogan said. “That park is not alive until the kids come.”

The first day of the program, some 600 kids showed up. “It was daunting what we had gotten ourselves into,” Hogan recalled. “Mr. Jehl would come out every day.”

The team quickly realized the small staff they had wouldn’t be adequate to really teach that many children the fundamentals of the three sports. More staffers were hired.

“As time progressed, the programming came together as we got bigger and bigger,” Hogan said. “The Mad Anthonys gave us $250,000 and we built the Par 3 (golf) course.”

Then the McMillen Foundation built an office at the park for the academy’s staff. Other donations followed to help improve the rest of the facilities.

Even better was the connection with the University of Saint Francis. Jehl helped the top players get scholarships to the private university. Hogan said he sees sports as a vehicle to help children accomplish greatness.

“Sports has allowed me to meet people from all over the world,” he said. “We try to make the participants understand we’re not just a club, we want kids to participate.

“Sports gives kids an outlet,” he added. “It’s not the sport per se, it’s the camaraderie, being involved with other people. It has kept me in touch with what life has been all about.”

Posted: Mon, 07/02/2012 - 11:46 am
Last updated: Thu, 08/30/2012 - 11:37 am