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Soccer Players Sing? For the Holidays, They Do.

Soccer players bring cheer to the residents of Ferncliff Nursing Home in Rhinebeck.

Their season ends in November, but every December, members of the Vassar men’s and women’s soccer teams meet up one last time, and the occasion has little to do with the games they played all fall.

As self-appointed “elves” of Poughkeepsie community activist John Flowers, the players and their coaches spend a day visiting nearby hospitals and nursing homes, bearing gifts and singing holiday songs.

“You can’t know how gratifying it is until you’ve done it,” says Alison McManis ’11, a former player and now the assistant coach of the women’s team. “Many of the people we visit have no family in the area. We’re received with such enthusiasm and graciousness, it makes you realize what you’re doing really matters.”

Celebrating Community director John Flowers practicing with his “elves.”

Flowers—head of Celebrating Community, an organization that hosts spirit-lifting events in and around Poughkeepsie—has led thousands of Poughkeepsie-area residents on these visits over the last two decades, and has been kicking off the holiday season with the Vassar soccer players for the past eight years. 

“The Vassar kids are very special to me, so I make sure they can do this before they leave for vacation,” he says. “I always get excited the night before, knowing they’ll be with me, giving out presents and singing and dancing.”

On the morning of December 8, as the players arrived at their first nursing home of the day, men’s coach Andy Jennings huddled with them and told them a story.

“A couple of years ago, as we were leaving one of these places, a nurse called me over and pointed to a woman who had been singing along with us,” Jennings told the players. “The nurse told me that woman hadn’t spoken to anyone for more than two months. You’re going to be touching lives today in ways you’ll probably never know.”

The players then fanned out through the nursing home, handing out brightly wrapped stuffed animals and singing Christmas carols.

Outlandish costumes are all part of the fun!

Some of the players could carry a tune. Others could not.

“I know I can’t sing, but nobody seems to care,” says men’s captain Zander Mrlik ’13, who convinced several residents to dance with him as he made his way down the corridor.

Mrlik says he looked forward to the visits—and seeing Flowers—every year.

“It comes at a time when we’re studying for finals and have big papers due, and, yes, it does pull you away from your studies,” he says. “But spending a whole day doing something for others, totally outside yourself, just does you so much good. It refreshes you. John Flowers has taught me a lot—I’d do anything for the guy.”

Jennings says the holiday tradition began eight years ago when a member of his team, Justin Salciccioli ’07, told him he had met Flowers while working as an intern at a community center in Poughkeepsie.

“Justin told me what John did every year, and the team immediately embraced it as something we ought to be doing,” he says.

And there were t-shirts to mark the occasion.

Jennings says he viewed the annual visits as an integral part of his duties as a coach.

“It’s a privilege to come to Vassar and the players know it. They realize they should seize the opportunity to give back to their community—that’s part of the process of becoming a better person,” he says. “That’s an end in itself, but it also helps the team. If you have 11 leaders on the field, your chances of winning are greater.”

Juliano Pereira ’14, who was elected captain of next year’s men’s team, agreed.

“This day builds our team. We’re just coming off a great season with a disappointing loss [in the NCAA tournament], and this is something positive we’re doing together before we go our separate ways for the holidays,” Pereira says. “John Flowers is so well respected in the community, it’s important for us to be helping him.”

--Larry Hertz

Photos ©Vassar College-Amanda Crommett '13