Wrestlers’ Day of Humanity

From Scarsdale Enquirer – 11/19/10 – by Todd Sliss

Dave Chun and Chris Kim repair a brick wall on Orchard Street in Yonkers.

Geographically, you can’t get much closer to Edgemont than Yonkers , though in many respects they’re miles apart. Though Orchard Street may sound like a nice place to live, for many years it hasn’t been. Thanks to Habitat for Humanity of Westchester, however, it’s on its way to becoming a better place.
HFH Westchester executive director James Killoran stands on the corner of Orchard and Ashburton, not far from the Yonkers waterfront on the Hudson River , and is greeted by many of the residents and passers-by. He is a familiar face in the community as he is leading the fight to change the landscape ? literally. Across the street is a very nice community which was built by the government over a 10-year period. Though it’s taking time, Killoran and Habitat are making progress on his side of the street without any government help, just relying on donations for materials and “sweat equity” from countless volunteer groups.
Orchard Street is a place where five years ago people were killed. Seemingly little things ? stairwells, planters, painting fences, helping a family get furniture ? add up to a lot, but that only begins to scratch the surface of Habitat’s goal, which is to revitalize the entire world, one house, one street, one neighborhood at a time. “This is a great street that we’ll change,” Killoran said.
The Edgemont wrestling team kicked off the official preseason on Monday, Nov. 15, but two days earlier they were working together off the mats at the Orchard Street Addition for the first annual Edgemont Wrestling Community Service Day prior to having a team dinner.
Assistant coach Pete Jacobson, who set up the event, along with coaches Jedd Chesterson, Mike Mitchell and Sean Ross, brought 23 of the team’s 26 wrestlers ? the other three had a modified football game that day. Jacobson and Ross are graduates of Edgemont. Jacobson 1996, Ross 2006.
This was Jacobson’s second experience with Habitat. In 2003, he and 15 fellow firefighters from the 76th Engine in Manhattan traveled outside of San Diego to help build houses for a community that had been destroyed by wild-fire. “It was a great experience to do something like that and in a way part of the inspiration to do this,” Jacobson said.
“As a coaching staff, part of our philosophy is using wrestling as a vehicle to teach kids qualities and characteristics like perseverance, work ethic and teamwork that will benefit them the rest of their lives,” Jacobson said. “The idea is we’re trying to create good people, not just good wrestlers.?
Among the tasks of the 10 a.m.-2 p.m. shift were moving a load of heavy rocks away from a house so that the exposed brick could be reinforced with cement, cleaning up garbage and lowering the elevation of soil in a vacant lot in preparation for the pouring of a foundation for a new home.
“Some people are good at raising money, some people are good at lots of different things, but we have a team of able-bodied, strong, young men,” Jacobson said. “Manual labor couldn’t be a better fit for us. They are strong and hard-working and they have good work ethic. Either wrestling has helped them become that or that’s why they gravitated toward wrestling. It’s a chicken and the egg thing.”
Danny Kornberg, a junior, is a fourth-year team member who got a good workout during the afternoon in Yonkers . In addition there was a sense of pride in a job well done.
“It’s important because we’re giving back to the community and we can see we’re contributing.” Komberg said. “Raising money is good, but we don’t know exactly what the money is going to. Here we can actually see what we’re doing and it gives us a sense that we’ve helped build this house. Being wrestlers we have the strength to be able to do this like move the rocks or dig them up.”
Oliver Oks is a second-year varsity sophomore. He’s participated in community service before, like soup kitchens and “easy labor.” Habitat was the opposite.
“This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done for community service,” Oks said. “It’s kind of challenging, fun and a good workout. I think it’s good for the team because everyone works together. It’s the first year our team has done this and this is a good way to get into the season, get working together.”
Oks called seeing the coaches also getting their hands dirty “surprising,” but added, “It’s good to know they are on the same page with us. We’re ready to work hard with them. It’s good, hard labor, what we’re going to be doing for the next couple of months.”
Killoran sees groups come out, and what he likes most is when they come back again and again and again. He credited Scarsdale High School ‘s Habitat club for running fundraisers and coming out once each month to work at a site, noting they are “very strong.” Other local schools with clubs include Larchmont, the Masters School, Lincoln and Harvey.
Pace University football has been coming out for the Super Bowl Buildathon each year. Pleasantville football and even the New York Rangers have volunteered. This was Edgemont wrestling’s first time on the job. As a former three-sport star himself, Killoran, who has been with Habitat for 30 years, loves when sports teams come out, noting that one of the esses in “sports” should stand for “service.”
“I want every group,” Killoran said. “I want every Jew, Christian, Muslim, nonfaith person to be out here. The meeting point is building a house for a neighbor and that’s the premise of all of those groups. I want every company that says they’re a good corporate citizen to be out here. I want lawyers, I want kids who are going to Ivy League schools. Real education is also giving back in the community.”
HFH Westchester has many work sites, including two houses on Route 22 just over the White Plains border. He noted that there are 40 people in a homeless shelter in White Plains .
“If 40 congregations adopted one person, got a guy a job, an apartment, then you’d close that shelter and house 40 people,” Killoran said. “I’ve been with Habitat for 30 years and I’ve been to El Salvador , Belfast , I was in Haiti this year. The hardest place to do Habitat is where we have the wealthiest county of the country where kids get tutors to tie their shoes, while other kids don’t know if they’ll have heat tonight.”
In addition to volunteer labor, Habitat relies on private donations to pay for site supervisors and supplies.
Killoran is motivated by the power to change lives, which he does in two ways. The first is helping those living in substandard housing, which is the mission of Habitat, the second giving volunteers a greater sense of community and self. He wants kids to start working with Habitat early and often so by the time they are ready to graduate they have the skills to be able to build their own house.
“Instead of swinging at each other kids know how to swing a?hammer,??Killoran said. “We’re like the BOCES school for all the kids who never go to BOCES. We give them a sense of what it’s like to be out here using their hands in a world that only uses Facebook and that’s real important, too.”
Killoran’s job is both rewarding and frustrating ? the progress just isn’t quick enough for him in what he calls an “obscene situation” in the country. “When are we going to build a house in Edgemont? That’s the real challenge,” he said.
If that dream ever becomes a reality, he knows just whom to call.