BURNABY — There are many variations of the parable which informs us that in learning we teach, and that in teaching we learn.
Boil those words down to their essence, however, and what remains is the singular feeling of a journey coming full circle.
Laura Kalenuik, née van den Boogaard, like so many other former student-athletes, has always been on that path, yet the subsequent turn, turn, turn of the seasons which follow a university sports career inevitably focus attention on the kinds of changing priorities which define new chapters in life.
But what if, say, a decade-and-a-half after graduation, smack dab in the middle of a busy life balanced by the demands of both profession and parenthood, the phone rings with a request for the former student to become the teacher?
In February of 2020, in an effort to more formally connect its past alumni with its current players, the Simon Fraser women’s basketball program initiated its IMPACT Mentorship Program.
Not too soon afterwards, a host of program alumni spanning the past three decades had been paired with players from SFU’s current 2020-21 team as a means of ongoing support in all manner of student-athlete life.
“At first, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to be able to provide any value,” confessed Kalenuik, who answered that call a year ago and was eventually paired as a mentor to Georgia Swant, a guard from North Vancouver’s Argyle Secondary who is presently in her third season with the program. “I was like ‘I’m 37. I haven’t played for 15 years. I’m a mom. I’ve got three kids.”
Yet despite the fact that the pair have yet to meet in person due to the conditions of the pandemic, both their comfort and their connection has continued to grow.
“I didn’t know anything about her,” adds Kalenuik of Swant, some 17 years her junior “but the more we’d talk, it was like ‘Oh my gosh, you are just like me when I was in university’ and ‘I know exactly how to help you.’”
PLANTING THE SEEDS OF IMPACT
IMPACT is an acronym for Individuals Mentoring Players Alumni Connecting Together.
Yet although the program was formerly launched over the past year, its Simon Fraser-specific roots were actually planted a quarter of a century ago at a high school in Mission.
In the fall of 1996, Bruce Langford, currently in his 20th season as SFU head coach, was starting a new posting as a teacher at Heritage Park Secondary School.
“I got hired to Heritage as a social studies teacher,” Langford remembered. “But I only taught socials for two days. On the third day, a guy came into my office and asked me if I was interested in applying for the career facilitator’s job. I said ‘What’s that?’”
Langford decided to take the job, one which involved everything surrounding work-experience placement and career-development strategies for a group of around 150 students per year.
“So I’d place kids at the Vancouver Planetarium, the Fraser Valley Vet, the Mission District Hospital.. even the coroner’s office,” remembered Langford.
Five years later, when longtime SFU women’s head coach Allison McNeill decided to step down from her position to return to the coaching ranks of her alma mater at the University of Oregon, Langford got his first chance to make coaching his full-time profession.
There will always be a storybook element to a former high school coach winning the CIS national title in his first season, like Langford did over that 2001-02 campaign.
Yet throughout a career highlighted by five Bronze Baby national titles during SFU’s brief U SPORTS era, followed by a successful transition of the program to the upper reaches of the NCAA Div. 2 ranks, it’s apparent that Langford has deemed nothing more important each season than the community of his team.
So while he may have honed his coaching chops in turning Heritage Park into something of a turn-of-the-century dynasty before arriving atop Burnaby Mountain in the fall of 2001, it looks like he also brought a lot from the specifics of his actual teaching gig as well.
His SFU players past and present, in fact, can go so far as to trace his experiences as a high school careers facilitator to the very roots of the IMPACT program.
“I remember I wanted to to get into broadcast journalism… I wanted to be a news anchor,” remembers Kalenuik, who these days, along with her husband Jeremy, a former Simon Fraser football player, operate a thriving real estate company — Whitestone Select Properties Group — in the South Surrey area.
“Bruce was always so good with that kind of stuff, and he was always trying to help us find mentors,” she continued of Langford who was able to set her up with Sara Orlesky, back then, in her pre-TSN days, a former SFU student reporter working locally at Citytv.
“I chose to go in another direction after I explored it,” Kalenuik says, “but when you are young, there are so many options, and it’s great to be able to ask different people questions.”
THE POWER OF COMMONALITIES
She’s the South Kamloops grad, who as both a player (2005-09) and assistant coach (2009-10) was a part of three national championships with Simon Fraser.
Yet over the last decade, as she’s coached high school teams at both Seycove Secondary in North Vancouver, and now Ballenas Secondary in Parksville, Brittany Parker, née Fraser, admits that the figurative tug on her basketball heartstrings has always kept her close to her alma mater atop Burnaby Mountain.
“It’s one of the hardest things to put into words, but a big piece of what has resonated with me since I finished was the connectedness,” explains Parker, these days the director for the Centre for Experiential Learning at Nanaimo’s Vancouver Island University, where she supports students by helping them find internships and co-ops within their fields of study.
“It sounds cliché,” she continued, “but it’s like this whole entity that is about so much more than games. It starts in your first year and just continues to enhance, and when you turn into alumni, it’s that feeling of connectedness that you just carry with you. That is what we want to achieve through IMPACT.”
So when program founders Dani Langford and Julia Wilson, stalwarts as respective point guard and post on some of SFU’s most successful teams of the 2000s, decided to formalize plans for IMPACT and put out the call for help, Parker needed no cajoling.
“The original idea came from Dani and Julia, and Dani reached out to me to ask if I had the capacity and the willingness to support this, to help turn this idea into action,” said Parker, a criminology grad with a Master of Business Administration to boot.
“I took the back-end pieces, all of the administration, and then we looped in (SFU assistant coach) Jessica (Wallace) and that was it,” summed Parker.
And all you need to do is take one look at the varied career paths of the alumni who agreed to take part in the program’s pilot year and you’re reminded of how such a diverse group of individuals have been brought together through the commonality of basketball to create lifetime bonds.
Joining Kalenuik as player mentors this season: Ellen Kett (2013-17, registered nurse), Morgan McLaughlin (1999-2005, educator/administrator), Joby McKenzie (1994-98, health care executive), Kate Pearce, née Hole (2006-10, lawyer), Brea McLaughlin (2005-10, registered psychology student), Kirsten Mulleny, née Wood (1997-2002, teacher), Dani Langford (physiotherapist, 2000-05), Courtney Brown (2002-07, sports specialist chiropractor), Anna Carolsfeld (2007-12, organic farmer/outdoor educator), Alex Wright (2006-11, civil servant, Scotland) and Erin Hobin (1996-99, public health research scientist).
Parker says that when the word first went out to the program’s past players, response was overwhelming.
“Even in our initial outreach we had so many alumni saying ‘We would love to help out, even if it’s not a formal mentorship,’” related Parker. “They asked if maybe they could do some informal speaking with the whole team.”
On that note, alumni like Meg Wilson (2012-17), Candice Odgers (1994-97), Rebecca Langmead (2010-14), Lisa Tindle (2006-10) and Pam Reynolds (1995-99) have all given of their time to the current edition.
And while Simon Fraser’s women’s basketball history, of course, pre-dates this season’s entire group of mentors, Parker says another goal of IMPACT is to strive to bring all of its eras closer together.
“We also want the program to not only connect alumni with current student-athletes, but also to connect alumni from different generations with each other,” she says with hope.
THE POWER OF CONNECTION
If Laura Kalenuik and Georgia Swant had somehow played in the same era, on the same team and in the same Simon Fraser back court, perhaps we would see the same chemistry the pair have discovered in their mentor-mentee relationship.
“I definitely feel connected to her through the SFU basketball program, and by the fact that she played my sport,” admits Swant, an environmental sciences major.
Adds Kalenuik, the former Brookswood Bobcat who known in her playing days for sporting a distinctive headband: “When you ask me what it was like (to play for SFU), right now I am just smiling thinking about it. Now, the mentorship program and the chance to work with Georgia has brought me back into the team. It’s been fun for me to go back and pretend that I am 20 again, to be able to ask Georgia ‘What was practice like today?’ because I never talk like that.”
Now that they are, maybe that’s when they’ll get down to comparing some of the highlights from their high school and university careers.
Perhaps Kalenuik will discover that in the 2016 B.C. junior girls championship final, Swant was named MVP in a title-game win over Walnut Grove after she poured home a game-high 45 points.
Or maybe Swant will gasp just a little when she finds out that Kalenuik, in the opening game of the 2005 CIS nationals in Winnipeg, hit six three-pointers over a 16-minute span and that her team-high 18 points helped propel Simon Fraser to a win over the Ottawa Gee-Gees on their way to a perfect 27-0 Bronze Baby-winning season.
Yet as Kalenuik proudly reminds, the support that the IMPACT program has been able to give back to the team’s current student-athletes has the potential to extend far beyond the game itself.
“Our chemistry, it started out slow just like it does in any relationship,” she said, “but this morning we were texting and talking about things completely unrelated to basketball. I think it’s a relationship that will continue, and it will turn into a friendship after that.”
And throughout the last 12 months Parker, Dani Langford, Wilson, Wallace and all of those committed to growing the IMPACT program over the coming years have come to understand the full nature of the team’s resilient culture, even though daily progress has had to be measured through the pandemic’s non-standard metrics.
In fact just getting everything off the ground in the midst of COVID has opened their eyes to limitlessness of the virtual setting.
“I think it’s interesting that COVID played a part in how we actually implemented and delivered it,” Parker explained. “It made us aware that we can be flexible and that people can meet remotely. We’ve got mentors in places like Toronto and Edinburgh. It’s offered us this opportunity to think about how to expand it even greater.”
Yet however large it might happen to grow, you can still boil its mission down to connection.
“She told me that when she was here in school, that she was a little bit lost in terms of what she wanted to do afterwards,” Swant says of just such a moment of connection and relatability she shared recently with Kalenuik. “It was just nice to hear her say that when she was my age, she didn’t know what she wanted to do.”
And Kalenuik, for her part, smiles to reveal what to her seems to be a treasured silver lining.
“As much as through the IMPACT program I have been able to be a mentor to Georgia, from my perspective, she has also helped me in so many ways,” Kalenuik says, moved by the way Swant has persevered to be her best self as young person during a worldwide health crisis.
“I feel that she has taught me, just as I hope I have been able to teach her.”
Just as the student can learn from the teacher, so too, can the teacher learn from the student.
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