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Using connections for kids

Events give students experience of lifetime

The Gator Bowl has been an integral part of Jacksonville's sports life for 72 years, but its sponsoring organization, the Jacksonville Sports Council, has existed for only four. Now, extending its reach to additional charitable endeavors, the council has just hired Kayla Vanderlaan as marketing and charities manager to devote full attention to the organization's community involvement.

"We realized that sometimes the story that needs to be told is not on the football field, and hiring a full-time person to concentrate on charitable and civic affairs only made sense," said Katie Cox, vice president of marketing for the Jacksonville Sports Council. "The Gator Bowl organization has been active in charitable events for decades, but we want to expand that, especially in the area of events for children. With us, it's all about the kids!"

A favorite project for Cox is the Dream Team, a collaboration of the council and Dreams Come True.

The Little Gator Bowl is presented by the Jacksonville Sports Council at EverBank Field every year on Sunday following the Georgia-Florida game. Four games are played to determine the Greater Jacksonville Pop Warner Division winners.(Photos provided by the Jacksonville Sports Council)

"Dreams Come True creates a team of 12 children with life-threatening illnesses from a cross-section of our region, including from Georgia to southern St. Johns County," she said. "This year's team is 10 boys and two girls. They go through various events that a real football team would. It's an upbeat and uplifting program."

Cox said that Signing Day is held in August, when participants come together to form the team. And, every Thursday for 12 weeks, one team member is highlighted. The Dream Team also takes a scouting trip to the University of Florida around Nov. 18, when they meet the players and coaches, then attend Florida's game against the University of Alabama — Birmingham. After that, team members receive their green jackets, just like every member of the Sports Council and Gator Bowl association.

"It's an unparalleled experience, and it gives the kids an escape from their day-to-day lives," Cox said. "These are pretty awesome kids! I think they have a much bigger impact on our lives, than we have on theirs."

Another favorite project takes place every year on the Sunday after the Georgia-Florida game, when the Little Gator Bowl is played. There are four games for eight Jacksonville Pop Warner teams of ages from five to 15. The event is free and open to the public.

"This is a great family and community event," Cox said. "And you should see those kids' faces light up when they come out of the tunnel and onto the field."

The quarterly speaker program sponsored by the Sports Council brought in sportscaster Lesley Visser last spring. About 30 girls were selected to attend the luncheon, speech and question-and-answer period, where they were able to hold one-on-one conversations with Visser.

Each year, the council also holds a Sports Career Fair for middle-school students. The last event, held in March 2017, had 400 attendees.

"Sometimes charitable organizations seem to skip over middle-school students, so we decided to adopt DuPont Middle School," Vanderlaan said. "Then, we have to decide how we will have a positive impact on these kids. So, we used our connections to entertain the kids and inform them at the same time, while also highlighting the importance of getting an education.

"A lot of kids dream of playing professional sports, but — for most — that's just not realistic. So we show them the other careers centered on the sports field by bringing in 15 to 20 sports professionals for the Career Fair," Vanderlaan said. "We bring in broadcasters and caterers, public relations people and physical therapists, etc. They're always surprised at the number of jobs connected with sports in some way."

The next Career Fair will be held in January and Vanderlaan expects 12 to 13 schools to attend.

One of the Sports Council's most important projects has to be the Awards of Excellence, which are $2,500 scholarships for the four top student/athletes in the region whether male or female.

"The scholarships are awarded at the Coaches Luncheon before the TaxSlayer Bowl, which is a real kick for the recipients," Vanderlaan said. "We're very grateful to Wells Fargo for partnering with us to make these awards happen."

Each year for the last 15 to 20 years, Gator Bowl Sports, followed by the Sports Council, has been providing tickets to the TaxSlayer Bowl for children and youth organizations through the Send a Child to the Game Program.

"For the past 10 years, we've partnered with the YMCA and many youth groups to provide this experience to 1,200 children and their families," Cox said. "We provide a game ticket, pre-game meal, transportation to and from the game and a commemorative T-shirt. Many kids have never been to a college football game or to EverBank Field. We're about to expand the program to do something like this every month throughout the year, so the kids will see the Sharks, the Armada, the Jumbo Shrimp, the Icemen, etc."

Cox said that individuals can sponsor a child or a busload of 40 children for this event, or can donate any amount to help keep the project going.

""With this program and so many of our other programs, we have the opportunity to utilize our connections [in the sports world] to help kids," Cox said. "Experiences are the very best possible things we can give to kids, and we make sure that there is element of education in the experience. It's so important that, while they're having fun, they learn something that will prepare them for the future."

HOW TO GIVE
Jacksonville Sports Council 

If you would like to help the Jacksonville Sports Council educate and entertain the youth of Jacksonville, go to taxslayerbowl. com and follow the directions on the page or call Kayla Vanderlaan at (904) 798-5998.