By Desirée Keegan
Athletes in the Smithtown school district have something in common with students in Uganda thanks to the efforts of several educators from across Long Island.
Carisa Eye, a Smithtown High School East varsity field hockey assistant coach and Nesaquake Middle School lacrosse head coach, is the latest educator to get inspired to give uniforms to the H.E.L.P. International school in Masese, Uganda.
“The things we take for granted over here like uniforms, that are so easily available to us in our school district, are things that kids don’t get in other parts of the world,” Eye said. “The little things go a long way. It makes you feel good to see these kids in our jerseys, and it shows it doesn’t take much to make someone’s day. I want my athletes to understand that.”
Eye originally asked Smithtown administration to coordinate a donation to send to Ghana, after a friend and former Smithtown student, who teaches in the William Floyd school district, asked for help through Facebook. Eye was able to collect a boxful of uniforms with the help of Smithtown athletic director Pat Smith, but her friend could only take some of what she was given. She came across another Facebook post, a press release regarding Smithtown West marine science teacher Kimberly Williams and the work she’d done with her sister-in-law Carolyn Ferguson, and Eye asked Smith to connect her to Williams.
“We do have a bunch of older uniforms we don’t use, and this is a great way of putting them to use for a good cause,” Smith said. “It’s really nice to see some of our teachers wanting to get on board and we hope the kids, who know what we’re doing, can appreciate what we have here.”
The athletic director hopes the district can continue its involvement with H.E.L.P.
“Seeing the photos they look like a team — they were arm-in-arm and you can tell it made such a difference,” he said. “It’s a great thing for us to be involved in. If we can continue to do this for underprivileged kids, we will, and I hope we can.”
While the idea originated with Ferguson’s former Rockville Centre assistant superintendent Delia Garrity, who helped form the school in Uganda with her husband Peter in 2010, she said she was thrilled to hear of the spread of generosity.
“It’s all word of mouth, which is amazing,” said Ferguson, a Rockville Centre physical education teacher. “The reach has been incredible.”
Garrity, who just returned from one of her trips to Uganda, said her student-athletes’ transformation has been palpable since being outfitted in the gear.
“When we began our athletic program, our children wore whatever clothing they had — which was not much,” she said. “They played with bare feet and kicked a dilapidated soccer ball. A soccer ball was used for volleyball with players hitting the ball over an imaginary net. When we received donations of athletic supplies and uniforms from Rockville Centre and Smithtown schools, among others, our kids were over the top with joy.”
She described some of the changes she’d seen in the young athletes since they were given the uniforms.
“They have more confidence, more belief in themselves as a team, more motivation to practice and a stronger work ethic,” she said. “Our teams win most local tournaments in soccer, volleyball, netball and track and field. Other schools do not want to play against H.E.L.P. Primary in the opening rounds of any tournament because it’s become a powerhouse.”
The idea of Smithtown contributing to the cause began when Ferguson was talking with Williams during a Christmas dinner. Also in charge of equipment and uniforms in her district, Ferguson detailed how she’d helped Garrity collect jerseys since 2013. Moved by her sister-in-law’s involvement, Williams asked for a donation from Smith, and the first batch was sent over from Smithtown in 2015.
“I think if someone is getting rid of something it should go somewhere before the garbage,” Williams said. “When resources are so limited, there’s always someone who needs it, and I work hard to make sure my kids understand that. Whether it’s uniforms or composition notebooks.”
Ferguson said the jerseys mean more to the children in Uganda than just the ability to play sports.
“Wearing the same uniform gives them pride and it encourages them to keep going,” she said. “That sense of community that perhaps they don’t normally have.”
Eye said the program also gives her pride in where she grew up and now works.
“I love my teams and I love my town,” she said. “Smithtown has always been supportive, especially of athletics, so it didn’t surprise me when I sent an email and they got back to me right away. They’re always willing to help.”
She said she was moved seeing photos of the smiling faces of Ugandan children donning the red and blue.
“It makes me cry,” Eye said. “They wash their uniforms and lay them out to dry on rocks like prized possessions. I’m going to try to keep donating every year and have my teams participate.”
Williams already handed over another box to Ferguson that has been sitting and waiting on her dining room table. Ferguson will pass the donations, which came from one of William’s former students who teaches in Maryland, over to Garrity to take on her next trip, and the cycle will continue.
“It’s connecting kids through the uniforms,” Williams said. “Smithtown is developing the whole athlete — not just their sports abilities. That makes me thrilled to be part of this.”
For more information on H.E.L.P. International or to find out how to get involved, visit help-uganda.com.
This version corrects the URL for the H.E.L.P. Primary School’s website.