Diving in to make an impact

One summer day more than 20 years ago our doorbell rang. I answered it to find a boy who appeared to be about 8 years old. He had a big grin on his face and expressive eyes.

“Hi,” he said. “Can I go swimming in your pool?”

Word had apparently spread that I love the sound of kids splashing around. Our daughter had recently turned 3 and a couple of adorable elementary-age girls from neighboring homes had sort of adopted her—and our ’50s vintage diving board.

Standing with him at the door, I thought it wise to take care of introductions. He told me his name was Russell and that he and his family had just moved in down the street. I asked him to let his mother know that I’d like to meet her and get the maternal OK for his plan before he dived in. He agreed and headed home.

He returned quickly, mother and little sisters in tow. I learned that they were the Bernsteins and that Russell had full approval to go swimming, if it was OK with me.

I bonded with Russell’s mom, Anna Marie. One of his sisters, Whitney, was the same age as our daughter and so the two of them became friends. Our pool was used often and enthusiastically by the neighborhood kids.

Russell was great fun to watch as he grew up. What a neat kid. Smart as a whip and, at La Cañada High and later at Berkeley, a standout in water polo. He was never far from a pool.

After her kids finished high school, Anna Marie moved to New Mexico. Her four offspring all embarked on their adult lives far away from La Cañada. We’re not in touch regularly, but every so often I hear of their endeavors, usually through our daughter.

Last week I had an email from Russell. He’s living in New Jersey, across the river from the Big Apple, and has started a foundation that he hopes will one day be world-changing. Although he’s still setting up the framework, his Global Team Players looks to match athletes with volunteer opportunities and also raise funds earmarked for specific goals. One in particular is of keen interest to Russell: to improve the odds of children in underdeveloped nations making it all the way through secondary grades and even into college. He’s trying to drum up some support.

I asked him if there was something about his youth spent in our town that led him down his current path. “’LC Business,’” he replied, “a motto created by our [water polo] coach Larry Naeve. We meant business when we played and we worked together professionally as a team.”

Naeve, who now calls New York home, was a big influence on Russell and other kids who played for him at LCHS, even providing them with stats and other information in professionally bound volumes. Russell said he still considers Naeve a role model.

“We were so lucky to have him,” Russell told me. “If you take a look at our website, you will notice that a lot of it focuses on doing the same kind of professional presentation of sports information, but with an athletic, professional and social development focus.”

I asked Russell why this new endeavor, the foundation, is so important to him. He told me that he has always wanted to leave a positive mark on the world and sees this as a way to do it. He’s had experience as a teacher, as an athlete, as a coach, and even as a consultant in the corporate world. “I know my skills can facilitate a much bigger impact,” he said.

Who knows? Maybe some of Russell’s LCHS friends will see this, check out Global Team Sports and dive in. Educational opportunities are abundant here, but not everywhere — and it’s great to see a product of our local schools try to improve the chances of other youths around the world.

CAROL CORMACI is managing editor of the La Cañada Valley Sun. Email her at carol.cormaci@latimes.com or ccormaci@valleysun.net.

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