It was a telephone call seven years ago that changed the course of Mark Gage’s life. A friend who volunteered for a hockey program called to ask if Mark would help with a hockey practice – one of the other volunteers was sick. With no background information, armed with his stick, skates and lifelong love of hockey Mark headed to the rink. It took just one practice with HEROS for Mark to recognize the impact he could make. “These kids need the smallest amount of help, like ‘That’s your right elbow pad and that’s your left arm.’ simple things like that and the smile that goes on their face after asking, ‘Do I have it right now?’ Pretty cool.” Mark has been a dedicated volunteer ever since and is now the Program Coordinator for the East Vancouver chapter of HEROS.
The core of what HEROS stands for resonated with Mark early on. “The fact that this program is for one particular segment of our population – the population that misses out on everything, simply because of money.” The initiative to provide at risk youth the resources to play Canada’s most popular sport was one that he wanted to be a part of but he also understands that it is not all about hockey. With his many years in the program Mark has had the pleasure of watching participants grow and build positive lives. He loves to hear about participant’s successes. “We’ve helped hundreds and hundreds of kids get into college, university, trade skills – that’s what we hang our hats on.” He has seen two of the participants he works with get accepted into UBC – one into the UBC medical school and the other in UBC’s law school, while another just finished becoming a fully certified electrician. Mark says, “Those are like ‘Ah-ha’ positive moments, like that’s all the hard work we did, now it’s paying off, that’s awesome.”
Mark admits one of his greatest paybacks is seeing these kids who have stuck to the program come back as junior mentors. “You just see year after year the change. From year 1, this child who can’t sit still and who’s like bouncing all over the walls, to year 5 is now walking into the change room and he’s helping that kid who’s bouncing all over the walls and can’t sit still.”
Mark also sees the difference the program makes to the community as a whole. HEROS creates a special gathering space for families and parents to gather and watch the sessions. Mark says, “To see the pride within the neighbourhood when two kids or parents cross each other in the street and they’re both wearing a HEROS hoodie. It helps create a real sense of community.”
Mark doesn’t like the limelight, his focus is ensuring that the kids remain the number one priority and they are given all the tools they need to succeed, but without volunteers like Mark HEROS wouldn’t be here. In many circumstances the HEROS participants have no experience with an adult who is dedicated to them and wants to see them succeed and Mark embodies this core philosophy of HEROS both on and off the ice. His dedication and character is apparent in the bonds that he continues to create with HEROS participants.
Look for next month’s issue of Along the Boards where we will feature the story of Mark and one courageous HEROS participant who has faced some of life’s toughest challenges.