By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — On the day of the 2014 World Cup final, one might expect the record holder for goals in international soccer competition to be glued to a television set, surrounded by friends.
Instead, Abby Wambach — Olympic gold medalist, international soccer star and role model to more than a few young soccer players — was breaking ground on a new natural outdoor play space at the Schenectady Jewish Community Center.
At the JCC, Wambach said it was inspiring to see the community rally around being active. “It’s so important that we teach kids positive actions, and that’s what I try to do,” she said. “We need to teach them at a young age what it is to be healthy.”
Wambach’s visit was the grand prize in an MVP Healthcare contest called Project Go. To enter, nonprofit organizations submitted proposals for projects that would help promote health and fitness in their communities. After a panel of judges narrowed the field to the best proposals, an online vote was opened.
WINNING JCC PROJECT
The JCC proposed an outdoor playground that will combine the natural inclination for kids to explore nature with a skill set referred to as STEAM: science, technology, engineering, art, and math.
The innovative idea sparked lots of support, and the JCC won the contest, earning $2,500 and the opportunity to hold a fundraiser featuring Wambach. Mark Weintraub, executive director of the Schenectady JCC, said people he never would have met approached him during the contest to tell him they had voted.
“It took a heck of a lot of people sitting at their computers,” he said. Before the ceremony, the center had already raised $10,000 from the MVP grant, a memorial donation from a community member, and fees that made the event into a fundraiser.
It cost families $10 for their children to meet Wambach for an autograph, $20 to join an afternoon soccer clinic, or $25 to attend both.
The new playground will combine the JCC’s play-based early childhood education program with Wambach’s message about physical fitness.
But for the kids who lined up in front of the JCC hoping for a chance to meet an athletic idol, early childhood education was far from their minds.
Leigha Henkel, 10, and her mother, Kris, were the first excited pair standing in front of the community center Sunday morning. Clutching a neon yellow soccer ball and a program with signatures from soccer greats Hope Solo, Lauren Cheney and Amy Rodriguez, Henkel couldn’t wait to add Wambach’s autograph to her collection.
“I’m going to cut this out and frame it when I get home,” she said, pointing to the page she had already chosen.
Henkel hoped some of Wambach’s star power would rub off when they met. “I want to score a lot of goals,” said Henkel, who plays club soccer in the town of Brunswick.
She hopes one day she’ll be as well-known as her soccer idols — and she has a plan to get there.
“You have to go to every practice to become famous,” she said. “I’m pretty sure they did.”
Wambach hopes that urge to work hard and practice constantly stays strong for the kids she met and trained while her colleagues were watching the World Cup finals.
“It’s something I’m very proud of and something I take very seriously, and that’s why I travel many hundreds of miles to come to places like this, so people understand that I do actually care,” she said. “It’s not just something that I say; it’s something I put in action.”
See Gazette photographer Patrick Dodson’s full gallery of Wambach’s visit here.