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The men's basketball team poses for a photo with the Young Quakers after the game against Harvard at the Palestra on Feb. 12. Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

In the ten years since its founding, the Young Quakers Community Athletic program (YQCA, or YQ) has expanded its reach within Penn Athletics and across West Philadelphia as a whole.

Young Quakers is a collaboration between the Netter Center for Community Partnerships and Penn Athletics that partners varsity Penn athletes — currently men’s and women’s lacrosse, men’s basketball, and track and field — with K-8 students at Penn's University-Assisted Community Schools (UACS) in West Philadelphia. 

“[It’s] a really cool opportunity for both the athletes at Penn involved and the athletes from the middle schools involved,” senior Jared Elters of track and field said. “For our middle school students, being able to get a glimpse of what it looks like to be a college athlete. And for our Penn students, giving them a glimpse of what it looks like to grow up in Philadelphia and [the] experiences and opportunities, or even lack thereof, some of the students we serve have.” 

The program was founded in 2012 by men’s lacrosse coach Mike Murphy with the help of Paulette Branson, current UACS Sports Fitness and Health director, and the Netter Center. According to Paige Lombard, current Young Quakers associate director, Murphy “was really interested and passionate about spreading the game of lacrosse, particularly to urban areas where it’s not as popular.”

Murphy and the Netter Center team first worked together on a soft pilot with the men’s lacrosse team and the Benjamin B. Comegys School.

The initiative proved successful, and attracted interest from Penn athletes and Philadelphia community schools. In 2013, the YQ program expanded to women’s lacrosse and track and field with more UACS. 

The COVID-19 pandemic took a major hit on YQ at the height of its growth, but the program adapted by seeking alternative ways to interact with the students and keep them engaged. 

“During the pandemic, because it was harder to see the kids, we started doing these kinds of challenges where some of them would send us a video, and they would get a prize,” senior Krissy Kowalski, a women's lacrosse goalkeeper and DP sports associate, said. “It was just something to help keep them active during the pandemic.” 

“We're working our way, as COVID guidelines allow us, back to where every school is offered all three of our sports, which is lacrosse, basketball, and track for both boys and girls,” Lombard said.

Young Quakers most recently expanded their program to include men’s basketball as the fourth involved Penn varsity team.

For a varsity team to be added to the program, both players and coaches must commit to engaging with students in the community at least once a week. Each team has its own unique methods of engagement based on the sport and schedule, but everyone involved contributes the time to become involved with West Philadelphia youth.

Assistant men's basketball coach Trey Montgomery immediately got behind the initiative when he first learned of it from the Netter Center. 

“I come from a similar community to some of these kids," Montgomery said. "They come from all different backgrounds and races and beliefs and colors and shapes and sizes and whatnot. And I was never told that I could attend a university like this."

Senior men's basketball guard Jelani Williams, who recently transferred to Howard, has been involved with the Netter Center all through this season, helping mentor kids through Zoom calls during the pandemic. 

“When I heard that they wanted to expand Young Quakers to basketball, I just switched my job at the Netter Center to being the Big Quaker captain for basketball," Williams said.

Each varsity sports team designates leaders in the program, referred to as "Big Quaker Captains", who help coordinate practices and sessions with the Netter Center. 

Current Big Quaker captains of men's lacrosse are seniors Piper Bond and BJ Farrare. Women’s lacrosse Big Quaker captains are Kowalski and junior Niki Miles. Track and field’s Big Quaker captains are seniors Jared Elters and Tim Dolan, while Williams is the men's basketball Big Quaker captain. 

Each team runs weekly sessions with its mentees in similar structures, including mentoring time, practice drills, and team time. 

“During team time, we gather everyone together and we talk about our day, what went well at practice, and people [give] shoutouts and [share] what they want to share,” Dolan said. 

Age group participation due to NCAA compliance rules against recruiting creates some obstacles to who can participate in Young Quakers. While most athletes are able to work with students in the fifth through eighth grade, the basketball team can only work with fourth and fifth graders because their recruitable age is deemed earlier than the other sports.  

NCAA compliance rules are also a barrier in being able to engage with these students after they graduate from the program into high school. The Netter Center continues to work to make sure those students stay involved with the sport or program if they wish. There are numerous opportunities available to them including an after-school program, internships with the Philadelphia Youth Network, and the Cross Grade Sports program.  

Like YQ, the Cross Grade Sports program was also created by Paulette Branson. This program brings back YQ alumni and essentially makes them Big Quakers — it teaches students how to coach, create practice plans, and manage a group, before taking them back to elementary and middle schools to coach.

“I really love just getting to know the students and talking to them,” Elters said. “I think that they come from a similar background as me, so just getting to look at them in a way that I hoped my mentors and coaches would look at me. I really appreciate the opportunity to kind of encourage them.”

“I just think that it does a kid, especially at a young age, amazing wonders for them to be able to see a university like this institution, to be able to engage with some of the student athletes that are here,” Montgomery said.

“Both groups keep coming back to the program because they build relationships with each other. It's less about becoming the best lacrosse athlete in the world, or the best track runner,” Lombard said. “It's more about having people that they can trust and connect with, and for the Big Quakers, it's a really great opportunity for them to reconnect with the sport and find the joy in it again.”

In addition to normal YQ sessions, the students are also given the opportunity to attend games as well as participate in events.

“The last time we had the Penn Relays, we actually did have a few of the schools put together relay teams with the kids that were coming to practice at the Penn Relays,” Dolan said. “It wasn’t really a session, but it was pretty cool to see. We [had] set a goal for a lot of the kids to maybe one day run at the Penn Relays, and seeing them actually get to run was pretty cool.”

Recently, the students have attended home basketball and lacrosse games. Some have also participated in the 100m dash at the Penn Challenge, the first track and field outdoor home meet of the season.

“The Young Quakers program is probably one of the most impactful programs that I've seen at Penn that seems to engage the community.” Elters said. “The Netter Center does a good job of trying to make that initiative, and I appreciate how we are, in some ways, investing in the Philadelphia area youth and giving back to the community, which I think Penn could do more of.”

The Young Quakers program looks to expand over the next few years and make as much of an impact on the community as possible. 

“If I were another program that was on the fence thinking about it, I would tell them to do [it] without hesitation because of the amount of reward that you get,” Montgomery said.