Playing hockey can be a tough job. But, Mike Hepler has a tougher job…and it can be a heart-wrenching one. Mike is the President and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. He deals with kids on the fence in high-risk neighborhoods. They can come into his club, or they can run the streets.
For Mike, having an ally like Georges Laraque to persuade them to come through his front door increases chances for success astronomically.
The Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania serve 7,000 inner-city kids and help shield them from the rigors of at-risk neighborhoods. Georges is able to provide a positive influence through a series of visits to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania.
Georges Laraque spent parts of three months during the 2007-08 season and visited nine Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. His impact was felt deeper than one of his bone-crushing checks.
Play It Smart is a community outreach program featuring Georges Laraque within the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. During each visit, Georges greets the kids and everyone gets a 'Play It Smart' #27 Laraque T-shirt. He signs autographs and takes pictures before choosing teams and embarking on numerous games of pick-up hockey.
While the fun is underway, he's hard at work relaying his underlying message. He tells the kids to make the right decisions, to be honest, and gives them positive reinforcement. Play It Smart has proven to be a hit, leading the right kids in the right direction.
The Penguins leveraged Laraque's Boys and Girls Clubs work into a vision screening program by partnering with Davis Vision. Many kids at these clubs come from homes that are underinsured or uninsured. Many have vision deficiencies that go untreated.
Vision screenings were scheduled and conducted around Georges' visits to make sure all the kids had the opportunity to receive proper care, free of charge. Any kids who were deemed in need of follow-up care received a voucher for a free complete eye exam and a free pair of eyeglasses.
Prior to the Penguins Feb. 24 game vs. San Jose, Laraque was honored in a pre-game ceremony for his involvement and devotion to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania.
For reaching out to their 7,000 members, Georges was presented the "Boys and Girls Clubs of America National Service to Youth Award" by Chelsea McNeil, Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania "Youth of the Year" and Mike Hepler, Club President and CEO.
I have been on staff with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America for over 39 years and have never been more impressed with any professional athlete as I am with Pittsburgh Penguins player Georges Laraque.
As you are aware, many of our Boys & Girls Club facilities are in high-risk neighborhoods throughout Allegheny County. After Georges visited our first site, he expressed a willingness to conduct hockey clinics at all eight of our other branches and do something kind for the thousands of children we serve.
Soon after the first visit appeared the "Georges Laraque Play It Smart Shirt" for every child and a smiling professional hockey player running up and down the court for hours teaching skills and creating an army of Pittsburgh Penguins hockey fans. Georges fulfilled his promise to spend quality time with the children in nine different communities.
Most of these young people are from single parent families, many have had their first experience with the juvenile justice system, and many are from low-income families just trying to survive – but all of them know the name Georges Laraque and have a greater appreciation for the sport of hockey.
His actions on behalf of our agency go beyond just being a role model. He demonstrated to the young people what "giving back" is all about and inspired them to reach for the stars.