Sprinter Harmony Graves finds inspiration in community service

Harmony Graves is a popular face at GIAC Navigators practice. Walking onto the track at the Athletics & Events center on Ithaca College’s campus, Graves is welcomed by a chorus of excited hellos and hugs from the elementary school-aged runners.

The Navigators are a youth soccer and track organization run by the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. The program is supported by parents and coaches but Graves’ role is different. A senior sprinter for the Ithaca College track team, Graves is more than just a coach to the young athletes. She’s their celebrity, their cool college friend, their expert.

“Just her energy and enthusiasm and excitement she brings to the table. Her willingness to go above and beyond,” Navigators coach Lori Brewington said, “it makes the kids feel like they’re important. Somebody cares. Someone is extending their hand to them.”

Three months ago the Navigators weren’t a part of Graves’ life and track almost wasn’t either. Coming off a serious ankle injury, Graves strongly considered ending her track career. The thought of rehabbing two torn ligaments and balancing schoolwork was more than she wanted to take on and stepping away seemed like the logical choice.

That’s when the Navigators came in.

All Therapeutic Recreation majors at Ithaca College are required to take a service learning class where they volunteer at a local organization and design their own service learning project. Graves already knew someone involved with the Navigators program and called to see if she could help out for her class.

While Graves thought she was just moving one step closer to graduation, she was actually inching back to the track. In addition to helping with homework and playing games in the afternoons, Graves also agreed to work with the track team.

It was during these sessions with the Navigators where she found a renewed passion for running. Seeing the sport through the eyes of her team, she realized she wasn’t quite done.

“The kids they definitely remind me of why I began running in the first place,” Graves said. “They’re always happy. They’re really energetic. They really inspired me to just be like, ‘I can still do this. I still got it.’”

Graves says she’s always loved working with kids. She taught dance to children for eight years and says they have an enthusiasm that is different than what she encounters from most adults. The Navigators for example don't see running as a chore but something fun they can do each afternoon.

“They’re long distance runners. They don’t know it but they are,” Graves jokes. “They’ll go for days.”

While Graves got inspiration, the Navigators received expert instruction and guidance. Graves works the athletes through drills and teaches proper form some days, then organizes physical activities and helps them with their homework on others. She has even set up other athletes from the Ithaca College track team to work with the kids when she can’t.

Brewington said the support from Graves has made all the difference this season. The kids receive a level of instruction most runners don't receive until high school and get to interact with a young person who takes hard work seriously. Graves also attended Ithaca High School, which helps the kids see her as a role model.

“It gives them the opportunity to see that they have the potential to do that as well,” Brewington said. “That somebody from Ithaca made it that far.”

The Navigators also got an upgrade in practice facilities thanks to the relationship with Ithaca College. In the past the team practiced in the gym at GIAC, which was about half the size of a standard gym and nowhere near big enough to hold a full size track.

That changed when Graves helped the Navigators shift their practices to the A&E center. Though Ithaca College was already in talks to offer the practice space, Graves helped expedite the process.

“We’d have to do about 100 laps in the old gym,” Brewington said. “This has allowed us to bring in a lot of different aspects of track to the kids that we were not able to do just because of the facility itself.”

Graves’ final contribution to this year’s team is one that should have an effect for years to come. For a class project Graves designed a run-a-thon fundraiser for the Navigators. The run-a-thon raised a few hundred dollars this year and will go to pay for equipment and other expenses.

“Lori said she wanted to expand the program," Graves said. "So I wanted them to get spikes, to get trainers, to be able to buy starting blocks, to have the gas money to travel to other meets because they go to like two a year.”

Brewington believes the run-a-thon could continue to have an impact in the future.

“The goal for Harmony was to have it as an annual thing and the way it went I think that’s definitely doable," Brewington said. "That’s the long term goal.”

As for Graves, she hopes to continue working with children in the future. She expects to graduate this spring with a degree in therapeutic recreation and wants to become a dance therapist. 


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