Lacrosse, the creator’s game, is filled with rich life lessons, character building, team building, communication, and healing. In the early roots of lacrosse, the game was played for the creator’s enjoyment and the healing of people. Fast-forward hundreds of years, and people all over the world are seeing the impact of those healing powers.

The Extra-Curricular Eliada Lacrosse (EXCEL) Program and the Eliada Thunderbolts lacrosse team have been learning the creator’s game and working to live out their mission to provide the medicine game to those who need it most.

Located in Asheville, North Carolina, the EXCEL Program is a therapeutic recreation model for adolescents attending Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facilities at Eliada Homes. These youth come from environments of abuse or neglect and are headed on a risky path. The program uses lacrosse to teach lessons about pro-social behaviors, team building, and individual responsibility. Beyond that, EXCEL aims to provide basic fitness and nutrition instruction and teach kids about the history and skills of lacrosse in hopes that they will be able to join a local lacrosse club when they leave.

Students from the Eliada residential and day treatment programs all have a psychiatric diagnosis and are not able to attend public schools. In conjunction with the therapeutic treatments provided, the Eliada Thunderbolts lacrosse team is a recreational opportunity for the kids.

Zak is just one example of the impact of EXCEL. Zak had attended Eliada as a student when the program first adopted lacrosse into the recreation curriculum. From the moment his first pass sailed high over his partner’s head, Zak was hooked and wanted to have a stick in his hand every chance he could. He was eager to learn and refine his skills to pass, dodge, and shoot better and faster.

As Zak’s skills grew on the lacrosse field, so did his character off the field. He completed his challenge to show the Eliada staff respect and courtesy while attending a variety of activities and stayed committed to his conditioning after practices. Lacrosse was a large piece of Zak’s improvements in the program, and he has since left Eliada to move on to the next step in his journey.

EXCEL started small, pioneered by a residential counselor with a single donation of plastic lacrosse sticks. In 2015 the program was awarded a US Lacrosse National Diversity Grant and received $3,000 to help grow the initiative.

Through hard work and some additional financial and community support, EXCEL has continued to grow and engage kids in fitness and lacrosse development. In just a short amount of time, 34 kids have run the initial participation mile, 27 have engaged in practice fitness outside of lacrosse, and 16 students have worked through the level progression system to earn their own lacrosse stick.

This program reminds us that no matter where you come from or what you’ve been through, if you give it a chance, you can find healing power in a ball and a stick, and in a sport that brings people together.

This story initially appeared in the US Lacrosse Diversity & Inclusion newsletter. If you are interested in learning more about D&I initiatives or you have a story you would like to share, please email Beth Mahr at [email protected].