Tom Flanders opened the door to a soup kitchen in Providence and led a group of teenage girls inside. The girls, members of the Pilgrim soccer team, looked around the room and saw those who were less fortunate patiently waiting to receive a free hot meal. The Pilgrim girls stopped dead in their tracks. The laughter and conversations the girls shared on the way to the soup kitchen were replaced by silence.
“The girls were scared, Fear was all over their faces,” said Flanders, the Pilgrim girls soccer coach. “I said ‘don’t be scared. These are people that need your help. We’re here to help.’ Once the girls got over the shock, they went inside, helped out and became better people.”
Two years have passed since the day the Lady Patriots volunteered at the soup kitchen. But Flanders will never forget the impact it made – not only on those who received the hot meal, but on those who served it – his players.
“Even players who graduated are still talking about that day and what it felt like to help someone else,” said Flanders.
Helping others is part of the fabric of the Pilgrim girls soccer program.
“It is a great experience to give back to those in need, to see what other people are going through, how different other people’s lives can be and how you may be able to help them – even if it’s just a little bit,” said Janelle Mixner, Pilgrim’s starting goalkeeper and one of the team’s five senior captains. “Every year we do something to give back to the community. It’s good to keep these skills…these skills will last you a lifetime while these soccer skills diminish eventually.”
Flanders, who has coached high school soccer for nearly 30 years, insists his team’s work in the community is far more impactful than the results they strive for on the field.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the hype,” said Flanders. “I teach our players to respect the game, respect the opponent and most of all, remember that being humble and understanding are characteristics that are going to get you further in life than your own hype and people telling you that you’re great.”
It certainly would be easy for the Pilgrim girls to focus solely on their success. Under Flanders leadership, the Patriots have become one of the top programs in the state. In their first season in Division I a year ago, the Lady Patriots reached the state finals before losing to perennial power La Salle by a goal in the title game.
Led by five seniors, the Patriots headed into this week with a 10-1-1 record and have set a goal to return to the state championship.
“Our goal, of course, is to win,” said Flanders, whose team recently handed La Salle its first regular season loss since 2017. “But we’re trying to create good human beings, not just good soccer players.”
The girls are committed to working hard towards their common goal on the field, but they also have a commitment to helping others. Flanders insists the latter is most important.
“We’ve done a lot of different things to give back because we are fortunate,” said Flanders.
The Patriots have volunteered in soup kitchens, raised money for breast cancer research and participated in Coaches vs. Cancer.
This year, they will do something a little different.
On October 21 at 6 p.m. the Patriots will host Senior Night. An evening typically dedicated to honoring those playing their final high school season will now be dedicated to a little boy who may never get a chance to step on a soccer field.
But 3 year-old Rowan Shaw will certainly know what it is like to have packed stadium rooting for him.
This Thursday the Patriots will be fighting for more than a win – they will fight for Rowan, the little boy from Warwick who has high-risk neuroblastoma, a rare and aggressive form of pediatric Cancer. The Cancer, which had metastasized to his bone marrow, is treated aggressively with Chemo and radiation…a tough battle for the little boy who continues to prove he is a fighter.. Shaw’s uphill battle is more challenging than anything the Pilgrim girls will face on the field.
TO HELP ROWAN SHAW & HIS FAMILY, VISIT THEIR gofundme PAGE
Mixner is one of Pilgrim’s senior captains who will be honored Thursday night and who will share the special night with the Shaw family, including Rowan’s older brother Devon, a Pilgrim sophomore. Mixner, the starting goalie since her freshman year, watched her teammates’ incredible run through the state finals a year ago at home on her television. When a family member tested positive for COVID, Mixner’s season was over. She was forced to quarantine and miss the last regular season game and the entire postseason. Devastated at the time, learning about Rowan’s battle put Mixner’s own setback into perspective.
“A lot of us on the team teared up when we heard his story,” said Mixner. “It is humbling for me and the rest of my team. It’s very hard to think about how young Rowan is and how he is fighting through his aggressive Cancer and doesn’t know what the future will hold for him….A lot of us on the team were tearing up when we heard the story. He doesn’t deserve any of that.”
So instead of stepping into the spotlight on Senior Night, the Patriots will turn the focus to Rowan and his family. “Fight For Rowan” is emblazoned on the front of the purple game jerseys the girls will wear Thursday in support of the fight against childhood cancer. Donations will be collected for Rowan and the Shaw family.
“This is a memorable senior class and they have learned there is more to this night than themselves….it’s important to share that night with someone else and to help raise some money for this little guy so maybe he can get whatever he needs and make things a little more comfortable. We want him to know that there’s a bunch of people that do care,” said Flanders.
“We really love that the team is doing this for us. I played soccer most of my life. This is special to me. This community has been so kind to us and we are so incredibly grateful,” said Rowan’s mom, Kendall “As for Rowan, he’s making awesome progress. He’s working hard to get his core and leg strength back and is up and moving more each day. We just have to get him eating and he will be on a roll.”
“We’re excited for Senior Night – not just for us but mostly for Rowan,” said Mixner. “We’ll have everyone on our side (of the stands) supporting him and his family. He is so young and probably won’t remember us doing this for him, but it’s good to show our support for him and let him know that there are people out there who are there for him.”