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During the school year, Jack Danilkowicz is a focused student-athlete on Virginia’s wrestling team and has started at heavyweight the last two seasons. But now that the school year has concluded, Danilkowicz turns his attention to another passion – Athlete’s CARE, a mentoring program developed by him as well as his two brothers, George and Rick, who are football players at North Dakota State and Johns Hopkins, respectively.

The program is conducted in the Chicago area and has grown substantially since its inception seven years ago, becoming a huge success while making a tremendous difference in the lives of many disadvantaged youth. For their efforts, the Danilkowicz brothers will receive the Outstanding Youth In Philanthropy Award from the Association of Fundraising Professionals Chicago Friday (May 15) at the Hilton Chicago.

Jack talked with to discuss the Athlete’s CARE program and building such a noteworthy organization.

Tell us about Athlete’s CARE.
This is modeled after the Big Brother program, but it uses sports as the driver. It’s a mentoring program, but we use sports as the main focus. The program deals with at-risk foster children who have gone through traumatic events in their lives that range across the whole spectrum. It ranges from very young kids, from about seven up to 18.

The program consists of two days each week throughout the summer. Tuesdays are the sports days where we go to the foster home and play sports with the kids, like baseball, football, basketball, just an activity where everyone is involved – anything you would do if you were going over to a friend’s house. Thursdays we get sponsors for outings. That is unique too because we focus on the sports and playing on Tuesday, but on Thursday it’s more bonding and going out and doing things together. They don’t normally have these opportunities – they’re not allowed to go to movies and do things that teenagers would get to do.

What kind of activities do you like to do with these kids?
Sometimes we will get a sponsor who would donate tickets to their place of business. We went to this place called Action Territory in Wisconsin and basically it’s like a mini-Six Flags – an adventure park. They have batting cages and mini golf and things like that, but the owners donated tickets and told us to go wild. We try to think of different activities, like movies – they give us a huge discount. Golfing – a lot of these kids are from the inner-city and have never touched a golf club before. It is an opportunity for them to broaden their horizons.

How did you come up with the idea for Athlete’s CARE?
Our parents always encouraged us to do volunteer work. We would volunteer at parish centers, which are places where homeless people can sleep at night. We would wake up at 4:30 in the morning before Sunday church and go do that or volunteer at soup kitchens. We decided that we wanted to do something that would be fun and get our friends involved in it as well.

How do you go about building a program like this from the bottom up?
We got pretty lucky because my mom knew someone who worked for Kids Hope United, so we threw some names around and from there, I talked to her and we went through a lot of steps. Kids Hope United is run through the state, and we had to meet with them and set some guidelines so we knew what we were getting into. We had to develop a business model for our activities and get that approved.

How hard is it for you and your brothers to do this while you’re all at different colleges?
It’s pretty cool because it’s all during the summer. This is actually the first time we all have been in college at the same time (George is at North Dakota State and Rick is at Johns Hopkins). My mom helps out, so it still goes on a lot. It’s not just my brothers and me doing it. We’ve had over 40 volunteers and it’s basically athletes from my high school (Libertyville) and all the surrounding high schools from Lake County in Illinois. That is pretty cool too because there are high-school kids who are involved and are the next generation of volunteers.

What have you gotten out of this endeavor?
It has helped me to experience new things and meet new people. The relationships with people from completely different backgrounds help you in everything you do. When you enjoy what you’re doing, you find that you can put in more than you ever thought was possible, and you get out more than you ever thought you could.

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