GRAND HAVEN – The Grand Haven volleyball team kicked off the school's fall series of Bucs pride games at home Thursday night. Bucs pride is a night where the players trade in their blue and gold for purple and white and wear t-shirts that honor people in their lives that have been effected by cancer. These events began nine years ago, when members of the community were asked to start a program like this.
Sharon Yonker is one of the community members that was involved in the original planning of the event and has continued to be instrumental in making the event come together. The idea came from something that nearby Lowell had been doing to raise money for cancer research, but the Grand Haven community wanted the money to go elsewhere.
"We decided we wanted to keep the money local. We wanted to keep it so we could help somebody that needed it. We started the community care baskets and that is given out to a family that has had someone who has been diagnosed. Everything in the basket is because someone with cancer told us it should be there," Yonker said.
Along with baskets and raising money for local families, they have partnered with Bluebird Cancer Retreats in Spring Lake to provide families with programs they may not have had before.
"We help them with their retreats. Their retreats can be for couples, one of them is a reunion, one is for women with breast cancer. We added a "momcology" retreat, which is for moms who have kids with cancer and this year we added the family retreat that allowed families to come to camp no matter who had been diagnosed," Yonker said.
In the eyes of head coach Aaron Smaka, these events are great for the athletes. They can broaden their horizons and help them see the good that can be done by their community.
"I love the things that we do that are community-based. I think we have a phenomenal community and this is just another example of that," Smaka said. "This one has a lot of special meaning. You look at our freshman coach Kabel, she is a cancer survivor as well. So, even within our program, it means a lot. Last year, Baby Hang who had graduated was another cancer survivor, so I think that's why you still see some of those things out there."
For the players themselves, it gives them a chance to play in honor of someone that they love and even allows the team to come closer together by recognizing that everyone has been affected by this disease.
Senior Reilly Swierbut played for Hang and used this game as a chance to try to embody her mentor on the court.
"She was crazy at volleyball. She was my mentor for all of the years that I've been on varsity. I wouldn't have played for anybody else," Swierbut said. "When I think about playing for her and playing for everybody else, I just see Baby in my head and I see her going crazy over the last point of the game or I see her encouraging everyone around her and making everyone better. That's what I tried to focus on tonight is embodying her and making the people around me better."
Junior Mackenzie Gross played for grandmothers on both sides of her family and saw the game as an opportunity to grow as a group.
"Playing with them on your mind, it gives you more motivation for you to execute for them. Playing in memory or in honor you know that something happened in your life when you had to keep pushing on. It just gives that extra push to come together as a team because all of us had a name on the back of our shirts and we all connected over the fact that we all have gone through something and that brought our team a little bit more together," Gross said.
The Buccaneers won all three of their matches Thursday night against a field of Western Michigan Christian, Hamilton and Whitehall.
Smaka also realized that this event could not happen and be as successful as it is without community members like Yonker.
"She can't get enough credit for all the work she does. All of the names on all of these shirts, she does all of those out in the stadium. She does all of the organizes, this is her," Smaka said. We do our best to support her and our kids get behind it and the meaning behind it, but tell you what, without Sharon this program would not be what it is."