NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. — In baseball lingo, “setting the table” during a game means getting on base for the big hitters; for the Penn State New Kensington baseball team, “setting the table” during the holiday break meant preparing 5,000 toys for local families. Head coach Jim Perry and the team volunteered at the New Kensington Salvation Army in December to help Maj. Elvie Carter fulfill the wish lists of children in the community.
“After reaching out to Elvie Carter on how to give back to the community concerning the Salvation Army, I was overwhelmed by the response from my team on how they were willing to help and dedicate their time for such a great cause,” said Perry, a resident of Lower Burrell, Pennsylvania. “It is an honor and a privilege not only to coach these young men but to experience a great camaraderie with them.”
Team members Jake Courtley, Jesse Gover, Jake Klukaszewski, Ben Lesko and Chad Navarro worked with donated toys and clothes. By separating them by age and gender, parents and guardians easily found the right gifts for their children.
“When I was younger, my parents always did everything possible to make sure my siblings and I had the best Christmas we could have,” said Lesko, a senior information sciences and technology major. “Our team wanted to give back to the community by helping bring a smile to a child's face on Christmas morning much like my parents did, and I'm sure my teammates’ parents did for them.”
A New Kensington resident, Lesko was drawn to volunteering because he was inspired by a quote by World War II hero Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle, “Nothing is stronger than the heart of a volunteer.” In 1942, Doolittle volunteered to lead the first bombing raid on the Japanese homeland and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery. The baseball team used the quote as a rallying cry.
“We spread Christmas spirit and cheer to families less fortunate then some of us,’ said Klukaszewski, a resident of the city of New Kensington.
Salvation Army's New Kensington Worship and Service Center, located in the 1100 block of Fifth Avenue in downtown New Kensington, provides emergency assistance for financially struggling individuals and families in crisis. Donations of food, clothing, shelter, household utility expenses and similar living needs are provided to underserved residents. The nonprofit also offers seasonal assistance, such as the Back-to-School program in the fall and Project Bundle-Up in the winter.
“It's very easy to go through life in your own bubble,” said Lesko, who was home schooled. “When you are comfortable where you are, you tend to not really look outside of that very often, and see what’s happening on around you. The baseball team wanted to step outside of that comfort zone.”
The team’s community service commitment continued during the holidays as the focus shifted from children to the elderly. The student-athletes purchased gifts for residents of Logan Place, an assistant living facility in Lower Burrell. The players talked with the residents and shared their largesse.
“My favorite part was meeting with the senior citizens and seeing their faces light up,” said Klukaszewski, a sophomore secondary education major. “It felt good to make in impact on their lives through a little act of kindness."
Since transferring from the Community College of Allegheny County-Boyce, Klukaszewski, has been involved in numerous extracurricular activities at the campus, including a supporting role in the campus production of “Footloose: The Musical.” An opportunity to serve his community was like a fastball down the middle — you go with it because good things can happen.
“Many of the Logan Place tenants do not get regular visitors, so we went room to room and handed out candy canes, crossword puzzles and word searches books,” said Klukaszewski, a product of St. Joseph High School. “We talked about anything and everything with them.”
Lesko felt right at home at Logan Place, in a nonresident sort of way, of course. Two years ago, he was a part of the campus Lion Ambassadors who put on a Senior Citizens Prom. The festivities provided an entertaining evening for the residents and an opportunity for the students to share time with them.
Baseball returns to campus
Perry, who has coached baseball for more than 25 years, leads the resurgence of the storied program that was dormant since 2009. The team operated on the club level last year before gaining intercollegiate status.
The New Kensington Lions are in the midst of conditioning, fielding and hitting in the Athletics Center. Perry's squad is working out in the weight room, doing drills in the gymnasium and taking batting practice from the pitching machine inside a 50-foot enclosed net. In addition, pitchers are throwing on the sidelines. When the weather breaks, the team will utilize the multi-purpose grass practice field behind the Athletics Center.
New Kensington competes in the Penn State University Athletic Conference (PSUAC) under the umbrella of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA). Perry brings to the campus enthusiasm and passion for the game and in his role in the development of student-athletes. Perry coached the team last year when it was a club sport.
“I want to build a sustainable program that teaches young men to become better people through the sport of baseball,” Perry said. “Shortly after volunteering, we began the process of team building and reaching our goal to compete at the highest level of the PSUAC.”
New Kensington Lions open the season March 18 with a doubleheader at Kent State Tuscarawas in Ohio. The first home game is set a week later, Saturday, March 25, against Penn State Greater Allegheny, a PSUAC rival. The field at Valley High School in New Kensington serves as the home for the baseball team.
“We want to make a huge impact on and off the field in our school and community,” said Klukaszewski, the team captain.
For more on the team, visit PSNK Baseball