Giving back: Bellevue lacrosse warms hearts and lives one blanket at a time

BELLEVUE, Wash. – A warm blanket on a chilly night for most of us is just a step away in the linen closet down the hall or in the bottom drawer of the bedroom dresser.


Bellevue High School lacrosse players Gavin Cipoletti (left) and Riley Gulrajani orchestrated a school district-wide blanket drive that collected more than 200 blankets and other bedding items to benefit homeless teens at Seattle’s Labateyah Home. (Photo: Bellevue Lacrosse)

But for homeless teens, many from Native American cultures, seeking refuge from the elements, and circumstances, warmth and security are coveted treasures — and game changers.

A game that student-athletes of the two-time defending Washington state champion Bellevue High School boys lacrosse team is changing one blanket at a time for young people at Seattle’s Labateyah Youth Home.

“We’re not just giving back for lacrosse, but because it’s right,” said Bellevue High School junior Gavin Cipoletti, whose team took on the challenge of collecting and delivering some 200 blankets and other bedding to the Seattle area shelter, part of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation, that annually serves some 80 homeless youth and young adults.

With over a third Labateyah’s residents of Native American heritage, the effort became very real for players of a game steeped in character and community values. And for Labateyah, the blankets fulfilled a critical need in helping restore comfort, stability and safety for young people looking to get back on their feet.

“There are a lot of things that the kids are being asked to do to become independent at a young age,” said Labateyah program manager Jenna Gearhart who houses up to 25 youth aged 18-23 at the dormitory style transitional home in Seattle’s Crown Hill neighborhood where residents can stay up to 18 months, allowing time to secure a job and steady income.

“They need the basics,” she said.  “Having a bed that’s made up is an important foundation to start with.  We’re trying to create a home and community for them.”

For the lacrosse team at Bellevue High School and the youth teams throughout the Bellevue School District, the opportunity to give back is all about the community and reaches well beyond springtime games between rival Mercer Island High School, Issaquah High School, Eastside Catholic and others.

The sport reaches deep into the unwritten values and culture of the sport that traces roots to the 17th century indigenous inhabitants of the Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, and Plains regions of North America.

“Lacrosse is all about respect and honor,” said Cipoletti, one of eight lacrosse recipients of the Bellevue High School PTSA’s coveted Wolverine Guard Award for Community Service for his 100 hours of volunteerism throughout the year.  “It’s our way of honoring the game.”

Among the Wolverine JV midfielder’s service was to volunteer alongside teammates, parents and youth players to organize the collection of blankets, clean sheets, pillowcases and other bedding during the month of November from Bellevue High School, Chinook Middle School, along with Enatai, Medina, Woodridge and Clyde Hill Elementary Schools and the Sacred Heart School.

An effort, one of three organized by Bellevue lacrosse players this year, embraced by Bellevue boys coach John Baumann who sees the community service program as much more than fulfilling the 40-hour requirement for graduation, but a window on how student-athletes look beyond themselves as a part of a broader community.


Bellevue High School JV midfielder Gavin Cipoletti was one of eight Wolverine lacrosse players to be awarded the coveted Wolverine Guard Award for Community Service in 2013. (Photo: Cipoletti family)

“It’s something really special to have our players from elementary school to high school coming together to give back like this,” Baumann said.

For Bellevue’s parent board, which oversees both the Wolverine high school lacrosse program and youth teams made up of students attending elementary and middle schools in the Bellevue School District, community service offers young people a deeper look into their role in society.

“I really feel like with any successful organization the key is doing more than for just yourself,” said parent adviser Jennifer Gulrajani, who encouraged her son Riley, another Wolverine Guard recipient and senior commit to play NCAA Division III lacrosse at Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College, along with other student-athletes to take on the project.

“Our hope is that they’ll remember this and put it back into practice when they are parents, coaches and mentors,” she said.  “It’s that repetitive cycle.”

For Cipoletti, the idea came after a trip — and a dare, this past summer to South Dakota where he and other family members spent a week building bunk beds, erecting outhouses and skirting trailer-homes for the Oglala Lakota Sioux people of the Pine Ridge Reservation, a rural community southeast of Rapid City near the Nebraska border where half of the some 688 households live below the poverty line.

“They challenged us to find a way to help in our own community,” he said.

Back in Washington state, Cipoletti put the challenge to work tapping into his family and team’s social networks last spring looking for spare clothing to donate in his own community.


Bellevue High School sophomore Jack Albrecht (left) and junior Jack Almeleh filling stockings in Seattle as a part of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Family and Friends Holiday Stockings for Homeless Children. The effort was one of three community service activities organized by Wolverines lacrosse players this year. (Photo: Bellevue Lacrosse)

Game on for Cipoletti.

“I was thinking that I would get just a few responses,” he said.  “We ended up getting more than 1,000 pieces of clothing.”

A short Internet search helped Cipoletti and his team identify Labateyah as a local group that could use the help, while the warmest articles of clothing – jackets, socks and sweaters, were shipped back to Pine Ridge where temperatures can dip to the frigid single digits during winter months.

With the initial success and a natural fit with the local group, Cipoletti again reached out to the Labateyah Youth Home this fall.

This time Labateyah caseworker Cher Ketah suggested bedding as an important need and potential difference maker in unsettled lives looking for normalcy.

“The kids were surprised that people their own age would do this because a lot of time we forget to help others,” Ketah said.

But while helping deliver warmth, comfort and a few necessities of life, Gearhart saw much more.

“That students honor and recognize the heritage of their game is so very important,” Gearhart said.  “It’s important that people don’t forget their culture and heritage.  It sustains community and identity.  It’s a foundation to get through the trials and tribulations of life.”

And for Cipoletti, that’s the game changer.

“When I’m cold I can just throw a blanket on and all of the necessities of life are here.  It opens your eyes once you see someone in person that doesn’t have that,” he said.

“It’s truly not all about winning or losing.  There’s so much more.”

To learn more, please visit the Labateyah Youth Home at the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation.

Bellevue High School PTSA Wolverine Guard Award for Community Service – 2013 Lacrosse Recipients

  • Gavin Cipoletti
  • Jake Greer
  • Riley Gulrajani
  • Eric Haehl
  • Arlen Hughes
  • Griffin Lew
  • James Spiegel
  • Will Swanson

To learn more, please visit the Bellevue High School PTSA Wolverine Guard Award for Community Service.

About Lacrosse in Washington State
Lacrosse has over 100 years of history in Washington state with clubs playing in the early 1900s and high schools now in their fourth decade of state competition.  With Native American origins, lacrosse is one of the oldest organized sports on the continent and today is considered the fastest growing sport in America.  In Washington state, some 4,000 student-athletes attending over 200 high schools play prep lacrosse, while another 6,000 play lacrosse at the youth, adult and collegiate club levels throughout the state.  For more information on high school lacrosse in Washington state visit

~ Mike McQuaid, Sports Information Director, US Lacrosse — Washington State Chapter

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