When Brian DeWagner set out to launch the Janie Lax Lacrosse Program a few years ago, he wasn’t expecting to transform the way young girls see themselves as athletes.
“This whole thing has really changed me, because I’m tuned in to things I wouldn’t have seen before,” said the man behind Sarnia’s first girls’ field lacrosse league. “These girls are pioneers — there’s no one doing what they are doing.”
DeWagner’s dream started with a handful of girls and some donated equipment through connections he’d developed with U.S. colleges.
Four years later, his free program is 140 girls strong, and growing. Three nights a week, he and wife June had loaded up their minivan with sticks, goals and balls — crammed from front seat to the back — until now.
They recently won the Mainstreet Big Give — a program that recognizes people who give back to their communities, across Chatham-Kent, Sarnia-Lambton, London-Middlesex and Huron Perth.
The credit union surprised DeWagner and wife June Partridge with a new trailer to haul the equipment, thanks to a nomination from grateful parents.
“Brian is a superstar with these kids,” said Selena Finley, who makes the 45-minute drive from Dresden weekly with daughters Emily, 10, and Erin, 9.
Erin, who has some special needs, struggles with peer relationships and trying new things, her mother said.
“Her first night at Janie Lax, it was like she was just one of the other girls. She was just out there with no anxiety, no behaviours, no avoidance or meltdowns,” said Finley. “It’s so much more to me than just seeing kids out on the field playing a sport. This is building confidence and character that will be a building block to the foundation of their entire future.”
DeWagner, who has two daughters of his own, worked at the University of Michigan’s athletics department in the 1990s where he made many of the connections that helped develop Janie Lax, from equipment donations to establishing relationships with collegiate players who help inspire his young participants.
“This is how Kaileigh met her buddy from The University of Findlay Oilers in Ohio,” said Laura Duke, whose daughter started Janie Lax at age 3. The family travels to watch the women’s team home games and meet the players, who have become mentors to the girls — communicating through social media and even traveling to Sarnia to hold clinics and holiday visits.
“They inspire each other in so many positive ways…even though she is only five, they treat her like one of them.”
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, girls drop out of sports twice as often as boys by the age of fourteen. DeWagner says it’s his mission to change that.
“It’s a very strong goal of mine — that we don’t let them slip away. If we keep it accessible and we keep it free, I think we can keep them,” he said. “We’ve got everything from girls on the autism spectrum to girls who have never played a sport in their lives. We emphasize them learning to love just being active and being an athlete first, then becoming a lacrosse player, second.”
“Being on the field with these girls is the most pure experience, and I don’t want to lose them. We’ve got to keep young girls engaged in sports.”
For Carrie Gavigan’s daughters, (Corrigan, 7 and Layghtyn, 4), Janie Lax is all about building relationships and gaining confidence. Scoring goals is just a bonus, she said.
“I watch (Layghtyn) listen to Brian’s words so intently,” she said. “We sometimes hear her in her room at night yelling, ‘Yes, we can.’’