For 90 minutes each day at two summer camps earlier this month in Silver Spring, kids who previously had no exposure to lacrosse were practicing throwing and catching rubber lacrosse balls with sticks.
Since 2001, Bethesda resident Jeff Wagner has operated the program as one part of an all-day Montgomery County summer camp held at the Gwendolyn Coffield Community Recreation Center in Silver Spring. Four years ago, Wagner also began holding the camp—focused on the most basic skills of the game—at the White Oak Community Recreation Center in Silver Spring.
Most of the kids, ages 7 to 11, who take part in the program are black and Hispanic. Some have never heard of the sport, which despite a geographic expansion over the past two decades is still played mostly by white kids. In Montgomery County, the best at the sport typically play at private schools such as Bullis, Landon and Georgetown Prep, though programs at public schools have become more popular.
“These kids have no clue about the cultural inferences and connotations of lacrosse,” said Wagner, a 65-year-old communications executive who played lacrosse at Brown University and got his start after college working for lacrosse equipment manufacturer Brine.
“It’s white by virtue. It’s a rich kids sport. It’s still a rich kids sport in most suburban areas,” Wagner said. “All we’re trying to do is get the basic skills in their repertoire for whenever and if ever they run into it again.”
Wagner estimated that about 1,500 kids have been introduced to lacrosse over the 15 years of the program, which he runs through his nonprofit Rosemary Hills Lacrosse Club with help from high school- and college-age counselors. Ryan Jones, the head counselor this year at the Coffield Center program, actually took part in the program as a kid and played lacrosse for Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
Wagner said he got the idea for the program when the Coffield Center opened and was seeking activities and programs. He had been a prominent figure in the creation of the Bethesda Lacrosse Club, for which his daughter played.
“I realized maybe I’d rather help those kids instead of these kids,” Wagner said. “If I had x amount of time and money to spend helping kids learn lacrosse, I should spend it on the kids who need it more.”
Wagner said he pays for most of the equipment and salaries of camp counselors, while the county has provided some funding in the past. Wagner recently started a fall after-school lacrosse program at Coffield.
Yolanda Blackwell, a county recreation specialist at the Coffield Center, said the programs are valuable mostly because they teach the kids something new.
“It isn’t necessarily the popular sport,” Blackwell said. “But the kids take to it. Even if just one kid really picks it up, it makes it all worth it.”
Blackwell said she especially likes seeing the kids involved in the program in the summer come back in the fall and take a leadership role by teaching others new to the game.
Wagner said he’d like to expand the program to five or six other county community centers. As the camp wound down earlier this month, Wagner said a camper named Miguel who also went through the program last summer asked him to play catch.
Miguel easily threw and caught the ball using his right, dominant hand. Wagner told him to try throwing and catching with his non-dominant left hand, expecting him to struggle.
“He looks at me like, ‘You think I can’t do this left-handed?’ He had no problem,” Wagner said. “It doesn’t get any cooler than that.”