Chrissy Lewis-Summers' program goes Beyond Sticks to help girls develop leadership, character

Chrissy Lewis-Summers, founder and director of Beyond Sticks, was honored as a Toyota Everyday Hero at the espnW: Women + Sports Summit. The organization teaches skills beyond the field. "Sport is a conduit for learning life lessons," she said.

While Chrissy Lewis-Summers was working at a 60-hour-a-week office job, a friend asked what she would like to be doing if money were no object. Without hesitation, she replied that she wanted to help empower girls through sports.

It was the first time she had said it aloud and the first time she fully realized her true passion. Instead of letting the moment go to waste, she turned it into her full-time job.

In August 2011, Lewis-Summers formed Beyond Sticks, a field hockey program that focuses on leadership and character development. Based in Alexandria, Virginia, Lewis-Summers, a former field hockey player at Vassar College, began by giving private lessons to three girls.

Photos Chrissy Lewis-Summers

Chrissy Lewis-Summers teaches girls about keeping the stick away from the body during a field hockey session in her Beyond Sticks program.

Three players quickly turned into seven, and then seven turned into 15, and before long, she had enough to field an entire team. From there, she started a summer camp, and soon enough, it was a booming organization that provided an in-demand opportunity for hundreds of area girls. In addition to the on-field coaching and activities, Beyond Sticks prioritized life skills and character building off the field.

Soon the organization had two successful components -- a club level and a recreation level -- and was quick to add a third nonprofit element. Calling it Play Beyond the Game, Lewis-Summers was determined to make sure every girl who wanted to play the sport had an opportunity to do so, regardless of her family's financial status, and she designed the program to bring the sport into lower-income communities.

At the 2015 espnW: Women + Sports Summit, Lewis-Summers was awarded a Toyota Everyday Heroes grant of $10,000 for her organization. The money went into funding a new program in New York City. Lewis-Summers worked with Inwood Academy for Leadership, a charter school, to make it the first public school in the city to offer field hockey. With help from players on the nearby Columbia University field hockey team, the organization has been able to bring the game to kids who otherwise would likely have never been introduced to the sport.

"I think this program has given these girls the opportunity to step outside of their comfort zone, in trying a sport that is totally new to them and finding joy in challenging each other to get better and better each week," Columbia student-athlete and program volunteer Taylor Mills said.

"These girls also have had an opportunity to talk to female collegiate student-athletes to learn about hard work and the many great advantages of attending college. [Lewis-Summers] has expressed that for many of these students, college isn't always encouraged for their future. I certainly hope that this program has given these girls the chance to see why furthering their education can open so many doors for them in their future."

Lewis-Summers hopes to expand the program in New York and to other lower-income areas, using Inwood Academy as the pilot.

Several of her players in Virginia who started as middle-school students and stayed through high school are now college students, so Lewis-Summers is starting to see the fruition of her hard work. She points to one former player as an embodiment of the program and everything it stands for. Samantha Russell started as a seventh grader and instantly fell in love with the game.

"She was part of my first team," Lewis-Summers said. "She got cut her freshman year [of high school] because she had an asthma attack and was able to continue to play through our rec program and then went back the next year and made her varsity team. And now she's a freshman at Kenyon College and playing on their team.

"She really bought into the idea of positive coaching, the idea of positive playing and just lived and breathed it. It's been an incredible joy to watch her go from a little seventh grader to now playing at a Top-25 D-III school."

With her husband landing a job at West Point, Lewis-Summers now lives in New York with him and their 2-year-old daughter. She is expecting twins later this month and plans to take a short time off after giving birth. Then she will resume full-time duties with Beyond Sticks.

Photo courtesy Chrissy Lewis-Summers

Leah Mathews, an alumnus of Beyond Sticks, is now a senior field hockey player at Columbia University. She helps mentor girls in the program, which has expanded to New York City.

Although free time is clearly at a premium, she has been volunteering a few days a week with the Vassar College field hockey team and makes frequent trips to Virginia to her organization's home base. When Lewis-Summers isn't there or when she will be out on maternity leave, she relies on a dedicated team of volunteers and one full-time staff member, who help ensure the operation runs smoothly.

Lewis-Summers says she is "forever grateful" for Toyota's financial assistance, but she is most thankful for the connections and inspiration the award has afforded her -- and for the validation it has provided. She has stayed in touch with fellow 2015 award winner Heidi Boynton, the founder of the Mini Mermaid Running Club, among other previous winners.

"We're a small organization, so it gave us that confidence that we're doing the right thing," she said. "It gives you the assurance to go out and say, 'We are providing a really good service for girls,' and it's really helped us in that area. We want all girls to have access to field hockey."

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