Shock All-Stars, Meijer help deliver school supplies to foster families

A Fresh Start

What do the Detroit Shock and the foster families at Orchards Children’s Services have in common? Both groups are near the end of their summer recess – and both will be ready to work when it’s over.

The Shock players, who haven’t played a game since July, went shopping at Meijer last Friday, purchasing nearly $5,000 in school supplies to fill 240 bookbags. On Wednesday, WNBA All-Stars Deanna Nolan and Taj McWilliams-Franklin handed the bags out at Orchards’ annual “Backpack Day” to encourage the kids heading into the new school year.

“It validates the importance of education, the fact that they’re here saying we’re going to give you some tools to do one of the most important things that you need to do in your life and that’s get an education,” said Michael Williams, president and CEO of Orchards, a full-service foster care facility in Southfield.

After distributing backpacks, Nolan and McWilliams-Franklin took part in a Q-and-A session, posed for pictures and signed autographs as part of a WNBA Fit Clinic. Many of their answers reinforced the messages Williams would like his foster families to hear. One child asked the players what they do when a really good opponent challenges them. “I never back down,” Nolan said. “I’m always up to the challenge.”

That’s a mindset many of the 860 children who receive support from Orchards have had to embrace to overcome the difficult circumstances they’ve faced in their young lives. Betty, 16, says Nolan is her favorite Shock player because “she knows how to keep her team together even when they’re losing.” Perseverance is an admirable attribute at Orchards.

“Our goal is to make sure every child becomes normalized even though they’ve experienced trauma and abuse in their life, that they see themselves as normal,” said Williams, who added this is achieved primarily through a positive experience in school. “Their ability to react and respond to those traumas is wonderful.”

Betty, a junior at Detroit Cooley, is one of Orchard’s success stories. She’s college-bound, with plans to attend Wayne State University, and she’s taken a leadership role, serving on the Orchards Children’s Youth Board. So when Betty found her favorite bookbag in the box for grade schoolers, the Shock players obliged. “I think it’s a big deal to me because I like people to inspire me to be all that I can be in life,” Betty said of the players’ visit. “It’s great for the kids, too.”

Preschoolers, some not much larger than the backpacks hanging down to their ankles, waddled around in oversized WNBA Fit T-shirts, making for an adorable photo op with the Shock’s superstars. “Let’s check those backpack straps,” Deanna said before giving one boy a playful shake.

Taj rolled up one tiny girl’s T-shirt sleeves, a maternal act that comes instinctively to the mother of three. During the Q-and-A, one woman noticed Taj’s wedding ring and asked how she manages to keep her family together despite the demands of professional basketball. She confessed that it’s extremely hard sometimes and prayer helps keep her family together even when they’re apart. Coincidentally, McWilliams-Franklin will miss her own 5-year-old daughter’s first day of school next week to be with the Shock.

“It’s one of the times that I just adore, being able to go with her for the first day of school, picking out the school clothes, shopping for the school supplies. For me it’s one of the most amazing things,” said Taj, who has two older daughters, 19 and 18.

“It just fills me with such joy because they’re beginning their journey, which for some kids is kind of a scary time but also it’s an exciting time. It’s something I’m really saddened I’m going to miss.”

Take heart, Taj. You did make it for a couple classrooms’ worth of kids that really needed it.