On July 21 and 22, in Anaheim, Calif., the Give It Back Foundation, founded by Courtney Thompson, Tama Miyashiro, and Christa Harmotto Dietzen, will hold a volleyball camp like no other.
Staffed by members of the USA women’s national team, past and present, the camp will benefit the Reins Program, a therapeutic horse-riding program for disabled children and adults. Tim Toy’s foundation, We Serve First, will be sending three athletes and one coach from Western Pennsylvania to participate.
By Tim Toy for VolleyballMag.com
I started to write a blog five years ago as a way to help me cope with what cancer was doing to my wife, Ellen, and my family. Ellen was a successful volleyball coach here in Western Pennsylvania, so the blog had a decidedly volleyball flavor. Ellen fought gastric cancer for more than six years until it took her life on February 22, 2016.
That could have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. My first blog entry dealt with the people who crossed our paths every day to affect our journey. This story of We Serve First is thick with intersections and collisions.
Next came a series of tweets directed to high school kids, local media, and national volleyball icons Alisha Glass, Karch Kiraly, and Destinee Hooker to raise awareness of and increase participation in an event to raise money for a variety of cancer charities. We called it Jam the Gym. This single collision with Alisha Glass resulted in a sign of things to come. Her connection led to Ellen becoming cyber coach two days later during the finals of the World Grand Prix, tweeting out coaching tips to USA Volleyball fans viewing the match. If that would have been the end of our connection to the players on our national team, it would have been enough, but the story was just getting started.
We obviously were big volleyball fans, but also a little ignorant about the pro game and how these athletes prepared for their careers after college. It seemed natural, then, to take the next step to find out more. Following the Twitter accounts of Rachael Adams and Geena Urango (“Athletes Abroad” account) connected me to Max Holt, and “Jamming in Five Questions” was born. The blog featured the stories of volleyball players, including their likes and dislikes, their thoughts on how the game should be played, and anything they wanted to share about their lives.
These new connections with the world’s best volleyball players, in concert with Ellen’s unyielding cancer, led us to boldly fly to Los Angeles to watch the national team play three matches against Brazil in the summer of 2014. Ellen was able to meet, among others, Alisha, Cassidy Lichtman, and Christa Harmotto (now Dietzen).
Not long after that trip, Ellen relapsed and had to undergo more treatment. She maintained the contacts she made with these incredible athletes and watched them prepare for the Olympics. Their support and connection was a very special memory for her. As her condition worsened and her treatments started to take a toll, her doctors decided to give her a break and hold treatments for a couple of weeks. When she was well enough, we made an impromptu decision to drive overnight to Omaha, Nebraska to watch the Americans win the Grand Prix finals. The team was warm and welcoming. They picked up our tickets, had us visit during serve and pass, and took time to chat with us. For Ellen, it was a bittersweet peak to her lifelong love of volleyball and the people in it.
Soon after the trip, Ellen went on a trial medication in an effort to try and stop her cancer’s advance. It was then that we decided it was time to think about her legacy. Spurred by the words on a T-shirt for the last Jam the Gym event, the name of the new foundation would be “We Serve First.” Ellen’s catchphrase “Flip the Coin, Choose to Serve” was added and the idea took flight. We would help kids who loved volleyball but couldn’t afford camps, clinics, and clubs. We would help to create their collisions.
To start things going, we paid out of pocket to send one camper to Give It Back’s first camp in Kent, Washington, home of our new friend, Courtney Thompson. Give it Back was the brainchild of Courtney, Christa and another national-team player, Tama Miyashiro, and was supported by the very core of the national team. The camp raised money that first year for the Children’s Therapy Center. Give it Back would utilize the national team to offer a unique camp and at the same time, raise funds and awareness for worthy charities. Of course, this cause was a natural fit with We Serve First.
Social media had helped Jam the Gym, and now would help to launch We Serve First. A GoFundMe account was opened, Ellen’s courageous story was told, and donations flowed. We sponsored three athletes from Pittsburgh that club season. The local volleyball community responded, and even more donations resulted from these efforts.
Unfortunately, a short time later, Ellen’s doctor discovered that her cancer had metastasized in her hips and lungs and she would no longer qualify for the clinical trial we hoped would save her.
It was time to make a difficult choice.
She could return to the painful course of chemotherapy to buy her a few months at best, or choose hospice care and live comfortably for whatever time she had left. She chose hospice, and didn’t suffer for very long. She died just 10 days after that appointment. Ellen was surrounded by her family, and comforted by a birthday video sent from her friends from around the world, the women of the USA national team. It was one of her very last memories.
The days following Ellen’s death were a blur, and I feel lucky to have had the support from our loving families, the community in the Kiski Valley, and the larger volleyball community from all over the world. It’s incredible to me that we were able to use our story to spread good works and love.
The story did not end there.
At Ellen’s memorial service, one of the players who we sponsored for club volleyball, Clairissa Hankinson, delivered the news that she had received an offer to continue her volleyball career at Eastern Kentucky! We Serve First, by sending her to club volleyball, had enabled her to be seen by college coaches and had changed her life path. Despite my grief, I was elated. Donations again poured in, as word of Clair’s stunning news was spread. Since then, We Serve First has sponsored 12 more Club seasons, sending over 20 other kids to camps and clinics around Western Pennsylvania and to other parts of the country.
My ongoing connection with members of the national team was made deeper by being invited and visiting Southern California to watch some tune-up matches with the families prior to the Olympics. Watching made it apparent that paring down the roster for the Rio Olympics was going to be a daunting task. At some point I stated that if Courtney made the team, I would go to Rio with the team. Court was far from a shoo-in, but she trained her ass off for this moment. Not long before the games, Karch announced his team, and Courtney was on it! I was going to Rio!
I was able to live out my dreams in Rio, as VolleyballMag.com tapped me for my perspective while I was there (all of Tim’s Rio stories are listed below).
I was able to write about my experiences while I watched the best volleyball on the planet. For a volley-nerd it doesn’t get much better. I have learned so much about life watching the sport and the way these athletes go about their business. Yes, my involvement came with a great deal of pain, grief, and sadness, but I found and still find a way to choose living joyously. As in the game itself, a point, won or lost, is gone. Nothing good comes from ruminating. Learn the lesson and prepare for another one.
Give it Back announced it would use the American Sports Center in Anaheim as its next camp location. The host will be national-team setter Carli Lloyd and the staff will include an incredible list of volleyball clinicians.
And it got me thinking: What if I sent an athlete from Western Pennsylvania to participate? A text to Court, and a few days later it was three players and one coach on their way!
So, on July 21-22, one player from each of the stops on Ellen’s coaching journey will walk through the doors to the American Sports Center. They are, from Plum High School, Makayla Jackson; from Leechburg High, McKenna Pierce; and from Kiski Area High, Cassie Shoupe. Joining them will be Plum Coach (and former player of Ellen’s with Westmoreland Elite Club Volleyball), Kelsey Bonk.
We Serve First has flights, accommodations, rental car, and camp fee covered for these three players and coach Bonk. I believe strongly that the culture in the gym will come back with these four individuals, and they will in turn spread it to their teammates here. Like ripples on the pond …
As for me, I have come to believe that our memories likely don’t last much beyond a few generations, but our actions can go on much longer. It is my hope that the players assisted by We Serve First will pay it forward, and in this way, the kindness and love will continue.
What can you do?
Visit our GoFundMe page.
Check out the Give it Back Foundation’s webpage.
If you have kids in the Los Angeles/Anaheim area, click this link and get them to this one-of-a-kind camp!
Athletics and collisions with the right people can change lives for the better. Remember, “Flip the Coin, Choose to Serve!”