Bears, Milton Hershey School enriching kids’ lives

Photo: Milton Hershey School

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Each year the Hershey Bears get an education.

The AHL’s senior-most franchise has made it an annual tradition to visit the nearby Milton Hershey School, where the team holds a practice on the school’s semi-enclosed rink before having lunch with players from the school’s hockey team and then touring a campus that sprawls more than 7,000 scenic acres amid the rolling hills of Central Pennsylvania.

The Milton Hershey School is a private school for boys and girls that was founded in 1909 by chocolate-maker Milton S. Hershey and his wife, Catherine. He also founded the Hershey Trust Company, a $16-billion trust fund that provides tuition-free education and housing for approximately 2,000 students ranging from pre-kindergarten through grade 12; medical, dental and psychological care along with housing, clothing, food, sports and extracurricular activities are also provided free of charge to students, who come from low-income families and meet a variety of admission requirements. Students come from across the United States and are eligible for scholarships for further education following graduation.

Chocolate, Bears games and Hersheypark visits are among the revenue sources that fuel the fund that in turn makes this education and those scholarships possible. When the Bears fill Giant Center as they did this past Saturday night, there is a direct connection toward improving the lives of the 2,000 students in the Hershey community.

With the rink open to the elements at both ends of the ice, last Wednesday’s practice was an experience that offered a change of pace from a routine practice. From there it was on to lunch, where two or three Bears sat at each table with a group of students. They fielded questions from students eager to pick up a hockey tip or two and also dished out plenty of their own questions to learn more about the students and the school.

“You’re in their space,” Bears defenseman Jake Massie said. “You want to give them the best day they can possibly have. They look up to us, so for them it’s a very cool day, and it’s the same for us. It’s one that we look forward to, and we have circled on our calendar.”

Said Dave Vagnoni, the school’s media relations manager, “We at MHS are incredibly grateful to the Bears for not just visiting our campus, but spending quality time with our students and forming meaningful connections.”

There are 203 buildings on the campus along with an array of athletic facilities, and it takes a small army to feed 2,000 students three times daily, clothe them, and tend to their needs. So after lunch, the players got a campus tour, meeting with some of the 1,500 staff members who make the entire operation work. Students live on-campus with house parents, and the Bears were able to tour one of the homes.

“It’s giving these kids a second chance at life,” Bears head coach Todd Nelson said. “That school has changed a lot of people’s lives over the years.”

While the day offers students a chance to meet with and build relationships with pro hockey players, it is the Bears who also come away changed by the experience.

“It’s incredible,” said Bears vice president of hockey operations Bryan Helmer. “I mean, you just look at guys when they walk into a building like Founders Hall, and their eyes are wide open. They can’t believe how beautiful it is, and then to see them interact with the kids, the students, and the hockey players, you see the smiles on their faces.

“To hear stories from the kids, what they’re going through and how they got here, is pretty special. The guys take it in, and if the Bears win, it helps the Milton Hershey School. It helps the students.”

Said Massie, “It’s great for the kids. It gives them an opportunity to see what they could be, and the Milton Hershey School gives him a great opportunity to do that. They have a good attitude on life, and that’s something I know a lot of the guys in the room take away from it.”

The event takes what would have been a routine midseason practice day and makes it anything but that for both the students and the Bears.

“This event is something our students look forward to every year, and I think it also gives the Bears players a unique perspective on what our school is all about,” Vagnoni said. “Our goal is to change our students’ lives and the Bears – as individuals and as an organization – are an important part of that.”