Haddonfield resident Finnley Ritter has been raising funds since September in the hope of sponsoring a young Camden athlete’s attendance at Parisi Speed School in Camden.
Parisi is a youth-sports facility that helps train athletes of all sports in areas like speed and agility mechanics, maneuverability and body control. Ritter, a 12-year-old multi-sport athlete, has attended the school since last spring to boost her skills and confidence on the field.
“I just really enjoy going there, and I realized that some athletes don’t get the same opportunity I have,” she said. “So I wanted to give back to others and I wanted them to have the same opportunity as me.”
The result is Heart of an Athlete and its EmPOWERment program. With the help of her mom, Megan, and her dad, Matthew, she set up a website and a social media page where people can learn more about the organization.
When the Ritters approached Liz Madden – master coach and owner of Parisi’s Camden location – about fundraising for Parisi scholarships, Madden was ecstatic. The Medford resident knows what it means to get an opportunity that is otherwise unaffordable.
Madden recalled how Ritter started as a lacrosse practice player and the effort she made to raise money for a different fundraiser.
“This kid raised two grand in a month,” Madden marveled of Ritter. “I was blown away when her mom and her dad told me that … it’s not like she’s on the A team; it’s not like she’s going to the tournaments.
“She cares so much about giving back to the community at such a young age.”
Madden noted that the biggest change she sees in students she trains are the increased confidence and self-esteem.
“When they start learning to move more efficiently, they become a lot more confident in their movement, which then in turn makes them a lot more confident in their sport,” said Madden.
Ritter began raising funds with flyers at local shops in Haddonfield, where she received monetary donations but also physical donations like candles from Meraki Market. As she became more involved with the Camden community, Ritter’s goals evolved. She began collecting soccer equipment for the Camden Youth Soccer Club that resulted in a donation of 125 new and used soccer balls, eight pug nets, cleats, pinnies and about 200 unused jerseys from the Haddonfield Soccer Club.
Through Madden, Ritter became acquainted with the Camden High School basketball team and learned about Donald Polk, a legendary Camden basketball player whose foundation, Below the Rim, allowed him to train 300 of the city’s youth athletes a year.
Polk passed away in January, and a community member suggested Ritter name her scholarship program for him. The Ritters spoke with the Polk family, who granted permission for Heart of an Athlete to use Donald Polk’s name for the scholarship and emPOWERment program.
Ritter presented three scholarships on Feb. 19 that totaled $5,000: one to the Camden High boys basketball team; one to the Camden Youth Soccer Club; and one to Jesus Colin, a graduate of the club recommended by Calie Condo, the soccer club’s vice president. Ritter was joined by Donald Polk’s wife, Nakeya “Mikey,” and family; Madden; Camden Mayor Victor Carstarphen; and several others. The scholarships will allow about 52 athletes to receive biweekly training for three months at Parisi.
“We can’t underscore enough the generosity of others being willing to donate to this cause,” said Matthew Ritter. “We’re grateful for our entire community, the network of friends that we have and just people who wanted to get involved with this cause. We’re really grateful for them.”
Heart of an Athlete will continue to raise funds to potentially sponsor more Camden athletes annually. To learn more about its mission, visit heartofanathlete.org or visit its Facebook page at facebook.com/heartofanathlete.