SYRACUSE — Julie Robinson has seen a lot of changes over her 11 years as head coach of the Wawasee swim programs. Some of it hasn’t been so good.
One of the changes Robinson has seen has been her swimmers’ preoccupation with their cellphones. She noticed that, with their eyes increasingly glued to those phones, they didn’t seem to see the people around them anymore, nor the fact that some of them could use a hand.
So she issued a challenge to her team this past season — to perform one act of kindness a day. Those acts were discussed in group and typed out, and when it was all over, Wawasee High School swimmers had recorded a grand total of 464 acts of kindness.
“I have been coaching for 11 years, and it kind of seemed from the beginning of the time I started coaching to now, the kids have just gotten so involved with their cellphones that it just didn’t seem like they were noticing the things that were going on around them,” explained Robinson. “There’s just been so many negative things happening with kids and in the school systems and everything else, and we came in and I said ‘Guys, we’ve got to do something different. So let’s make this year lead with the heart, one act of kindness at a time.’ That was just kind of our theme for the entire year.
“The whole point of it is to put the phone down for just a few minutes and connect with another human being. That was kind of my thought with these kids — just doing something where you’re connecting with someone else, even if it’s just for a second.”
Robinson’s swimmers completed acts of kindness ranging from simply opening the door for someone else, to shoveling sidewalks, to tutoring fellow students. When the team manager had finished typing out all those many acts, there were 16 pages of good deeds. The sheer volume of it surprised even Robinson.
“When I pulled it and I printed it out, I was like ‘Wow, that’s 16 pages.’ And then I counted them up, and I was like ‘Oh my gosh,’” she recalled. “And then you start to think about what that means and all the things they did that maybe just put a smile on somebody’s face or changed that person’s day or maybe made them say something nice to somebody else.”
And those 464 recorded acts don’t even tell the whole story, either.
“The reality of that is once we came into our Christmas we lost our pool here so we had to do a lot of traveling. So we weren’t able to keep track of them, write them down. All of those came in before Christmas time,” said Robinson.
As you might expect, many of Robinson’s athletes struggled at the outset of their project. But as time went on, the Wawasee skipper saw a change in their attitudes — they were actually enjoying their new responsibilities. And the exercise had an added benefit, too.
“It was interesting to watch how they seemed to enjoy it more and more. At first it was like ‘Oh my gosh, this is hard,’” said Robinson. “They really got into it and enjoyed hearing what each other did. And at the end of the day, the interesting part of my year, in 11 years I would say this is probably the closest team that I’ve had, and I don’t think that it’s not coincident to what we were doing. I think it definitely changed the way the kids were thinking.”
Which was Robinson’s greater hope for the project all along — that her swimmers’ efforts would not only improve someone’s day, but that it might even lead to lasting change in her athletes’ perspectives and habits.
Robinson is personally donating $200 to Purdue’s cancer research center to honor her kids’ good works over the 2018-19 season, and she’s hoping to expand the project to include other Wawasee High School athletic teams in the future. If her challenge takes hold, the impact of a few, individual acts of kindness could become pretty big.
“I’m hoping that the school will get involved with this and maybe get other sports involved. I’m putting a challenge out there to them where there’s a challenge among all the sports at the school, and I’m hoping maybe I can find other people that will be willing to donate and then we can give whatever we put together each year towards the charity of their choice,” she explained. “That’s my hope because I think it was so incredible with these kids, that if we could get every team involved that Wawasee has and continue on, I just think it would make a change in our community and what these kids are doing. Even if you could impact, gosh, even 25 percent of them that they carry this on and continue to do it, that seems to me like a pretty big number of maybe changing the way that people think.”