IF SOMEONE drops the phrase "stuff a bus" in the context of football, passionate fans of the sport might think you're talking about stopping Pittsburgh Steelers' running back Jerome "The Bus" Bettis.
But mention it around players and parents in the Columbia Ravens youth organization, and they'll define the phrase with a community service spin. For the second straight fall, stuffing a bus for them has meant bringing a bag of food along when they turned in uniforms and equipment.
The club participated in a Baltimore radio station's food drive, and by simple coincidence, said board member Mimi Goodman, managed to donate 106 bags -- which got them an unexpectedly big plug on the station. Seems that number is the radio station's frequency.
And Goodman said that although the level of donations was slightly smaller then 2003, when the club had more teams, the effort counts.
On the other hand, the club provided 10 Columbia households, screened by Columbia's Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church, with turkey dinners for Thanksgiving.
You would expect this kind of service from Scouting or church organizations. But the food drive was just one example of the two-year-old Ravens' interest in teaching things other than skills of football and basketball.
"We want to try to get kids to do a little bit more -- to better understand what's meant by community service," said club President Melvin Powell. That led Goodman to connect with club parent Nadia Anthony in an unexpected community service venture.
"Nadia knew of a Web site [www.operationlettersfrom home.com] that encourages people to write and support our troops," said Goodman.
Thus, Ravens' players -- as young as 6 and 7 -- began corresponding this fall with 15 American soldiers stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan and a couple in Ukraine -- knowing for the most part only a name and an overseas postal address. A few provided the Web site with some background to build on: One is a single mother with two children back home, another's wife had just been diagnosed with a chronic disease.
At first, the club sent 600 postcards, each with a personally written message of support or encouragement. Players could write their postcards at home, although at least one Ravens team opted to do it as a group during practice one day. They expressed thoughts as only children can.
Goodman said one wrote, "I'm going to dedicate our championship game to you."
Another wrote: "Thank you for what you're doing so we're free to live in a country where we can play football."
After Halloween, some sent packages of candy to the same troops, and for the year-end holidays, a number have sent packages of staples and reminders of home. To give the soldiers a mental image of who is back home pulling for them, Ravens members also have sent a club program with team photographs, said Goodman.
"The postcards didn't have return addresses, but when you send a package," Goodman said, "you have to include a name and return address, so maybe we'll be hearing something back. I hope so, anyway."
Added Anthony: "The kids did a nice job. They really got into it. ... We wanted the soldiers to know there're people back home who care."
Ravens basketball: The Ravens, a club that was formed out of the disbanded Columbia Bulldogs football organization two years ago, are in their second year of basketball.
The club tentatively entered the youth travel basketball world last winter with 29 boys. This year, writer Jeff Seidel learned in reporting today's accompanying article, the Ravens have increased to 80 players on eight travel teams in five age groups (10-and-under to 14-and-under). They'll be playing in the Lansdowne-based Maryland Sure Shot League.
The Ravens have plenty of places for games but, given demands on public school gyms from older, much larger programs, need to go to other places for practice.
"Practice is a challenge," said Powell. "Unfortunately, our parents have to be very tolerant with us. It changes from week to week."
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