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Sport Shaquille O'Neal on his game-changing foundation: 'I am glad we were able to step in and help'

09:31  28 january  2021
09:31  28 january  2021 Source:   usatoday.com

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High schools across the nation saw their athletic programs sidelined as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Title I high schools, designated by the Department of Education, saw a clear disparity of funding to provide students, coaches and trainers the needed equipment and resources for a safe return to play.

To mitigate the impact of COVID-19, the Shaquille O'Neal Foundation created Get Game Ready, an initiative to help athletic programs restart efficiently when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Grant recipients, announced Wednesday, received financial aid to properly supply their school with personal protective equipment (PPE), hygiene and sanitation supplies and other equipment required to follow COVID-19 safety protocols.

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“We want to at least help these schools cover the cost of crucial supplies in addition to personal protective equipment, like water bottles, uniforms, sports gear, and all of the stuff that they need," O'Neal told USA TODAY Sports. "We wanted to be there for them."

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Title I schools include low-income students that receive federal funds to assist in meeting their educational goals.

With increased expenses as a result of new safety protocols and the loss of revenue from fewer on-campus activities, the foundation wanted to focus on schools with the most need.

“There is so much that needs to be done," Kari Uyehara, director of the Shaquille O'Neal Foundation, told USA TODAY Sports. "And what we narrowed in on was Title I high schools. We wanted to impact those schools that were affected by COVID-19 and a lot of these sports programs were affected pre-COVID because these schools are in underserved areas with lower-income families. That is the demographic that we wanted to make sure to help as best we could.”

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The foundation reviewed applications and grant requests, prioritizing the athletic programs that needed the most help.

“In September of 2020, we made the grant available and we received a little over 130 applications," said Uyehara. "From there we began the process. We formed a committee and the committee reviewed all of the applications and we narrowed it down.”

Twenty-three schools were chosen and a total of $320,000 was granted.

The grant money donated by the Shaquille O'Neal Foundation was in collaboration with IcyHot. It pledged $1 from IcyHot box sales in 2020. Also, the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA) will provide schools with resources and educational material to better equip schools' athletic staff to ensure a safe return to play. O'Neal is a spokesman for IcyHot.

“In the age of coronavirus, kids can’t share uniforms,” said Uyehara. "They need to be sanitized in between each use. Schools applied for uniforms so they would have two sets. They also applied for things like reusable water bottles, because sanitation and cleanliness are important. Those are things that they never had a huge use for, but now it is a necessity.”

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Bonanza High School in Las Vegas, Nevada is one of the grant recipients. It's home to 2,100 students and 350-400 athletes.

Athletic Director Jermone Riley heard of the "Get Game Ready" opportunity from a friend and was eager to share it with Joe Petrie, the school's principal and its assistant principal of athletics.

“With the pandemic going on, kids are really having a hard time with that and not having their sports," Petrie told USA TODAY Sports. "We decided to apply so when the sports do return, we return with a bang, and provide our kids what they haven’t had in a long time."

Riley says the grants help in ways that many may not even think about.

“We have one athletic trainer here who is here every day with our kids when we have practices and he is at all of our games," said Riley. "And I know this has been a concern for him. How are we going to do the traditional icing and taping and addressing injuries as they happen and monitoring temperatures and COVID symptoms? I know this grant has eased his mind."

Bonanza High School often competes against schools with students that come from families with high socioeconomic statuses, which Petrie acknowledged played an important role in wanting to find the best resources to help support his students.

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“Bonanza High school is a Title I school and the majority of our kids are lower socioeconomic and lower finances. We just don’t have some of the resources that some of the other schools we compete with have," said Petrie.  "A lot of that is due to the financial situations that some of the families come from. We are tier one, Title I, which is the highest tier and it is really hard for me to see when we play other schools that those kids have three or four other uniforms and we have one. This (grant) gives our kids hope and it gives our kids that chance to have some of the things that other kids have at schools that are generally more affluent than we are."

"The Shaquille O'Neal Foundation is investing in underserved communities and underserved children," said Riley. "It's just the perfect match for us to receive this grant."

Mandie Lozano, the athletic trainer at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, Georgia, applied for the grant on the school’s behalf.

Booker T. Washington's needs ranged from cheerleading uniforms and masks to hand sanitizer and gloves.

Both Booker T. Washington and Bonanza High School are practicing distance learning but sports at Booker T. Washington are being played at a limited capacity.

“Right now our students are lonely and they don't get to see their friends every day," Lozano said. “Being able to provide them an outlet and care for them in that way has really shown me how important athletics are in a social and emotional way for our students. This really has been their outlet for the last few months.”

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Booker T. Washington, Georgia's first public high school for African Americans, is home to about 800 students and 150-200 student athletes. Lozano says that the disparity her students have faced due to the pandemic in comparison to other students in the region is apparent now more than ever.

“We were at a private school recently and their mask policy was 'use one, lose one' and it was really eye-opening that those students had enough funds that every time they checked in and out of the basketball game, they could throw away their masks and grab a new one," said Lozano. "It really brought attention to the level of disparity and how something like getting a grant like this, we can get extra masks. The things that the kids don't always think about that other kids have an abundance of access to, will really help them more than they realize."

a man riding on the back of a car: Shaquille O'Neal at the foundation's Shaq-A-Claus holiday giveaway December 2020 in McDonough, GA. This event is an annual program a part of the Shaquille O'Neal Foundation. Brooke Snellgrove © Brooke Snellgrove Shaquille O'Neal at the foundation's Shaq-A-Claus holiday giveaway December 2020 in McDonough, GA. This event is an annual program a part of the Shaquille O'Neal Foundation. Brooke Snellgrove

“I hate that (phrase) 'budget cuts'," said O'Neal. "And you should never cut children's education or children's activities so I am glad we were able to step in and help. We want to support these children in high school. A lot of these kids, all they have are sports. Sports is a way to stay active and keep kids off the street. It feels good to be able to help these people out."

Contact Analis Bailey at aabailey@usatoday.com or on Twitter @analisbailey.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Shaquille O'Neal on his game-changing foundation: 'I am glad we were able to step in and help'

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