When Mike Bensey and his family moved to Lake Nona 13 years ago, he’d hoped to enroll his eighth-grade son in youth football where he could play sports and meet new friends in the community. Instead, he spent a year shuttling his son back to their old neighborhood on the east side of Orlando to play football since he wasn’t having any luck finding an organized sports program in Lake Nona.
Mike wondered if other parents were in a similar situation, so he called a meeting at the Lake Nona McDonald’s to see if his neighbors were interested in starting a youth football league. To his surprise, several families showed up, and the parents formed a board, recruited volunteers, and created a plan.
“We really wanted to include all kinds of sports so kids could try what interested them,” Bensey said. “But we knew it couldn’t happen all at once since we had to find facilities where we could practice and play games, buy equipment, and organize the programs. Although our vision was ambitious, we scaled it back and started with football and cheer.”
During their first year, the 14U and 10U age groups both won football national championships that helped set the stage for future success. The program Bensey and his neighbors created is now Lake Nona Youth Sports, and kids in the community can participate in football and cheer, along with wrestling, lacrosse, rowing and baseball, thanks to partnerships with Lake Nona High School and other established sports programs in South Orlando.
“From the beginning, coaches were willing to jump in and help, and parents donated funds to provide scholarships for kids who wanted to participate but didn’t have the financial resources,” Bensey said. “We wanted to help kids play sports and improve their skills, but we also wanted to help build their characters and instill qualities that would help them mature into outstanding young adults.”
Lake Nona Youth Sports is now led by 11 board members, a group of dedicated coaches, and a loyal band of parents who all volunteer their time, resources and expertise. They carry on the vision of the original board members – Daryl Smith, Barry Rice, Johnny McDonald, Harold Lawson, Allyn Macumber, Amanda Allen, Bethanie McKinley, Tonda Logue, Michelle Thomas and Erica Williams-Hughes – who joined Bensey more than a decade ago to bring youth sports to Lake Nona.
“Over the past 10 years, we’ve had more than 2,000 young athletes between the ages of 5 and 14 participate in sports,” said C.R. Dunnavant, who is the current president of Lake Nona Youth Sports. “We welcome all kids in the community, and for those who need financial assistance, our volunteers and sponsors generously donate to help defray expenses. We’re still dedicated to helping provide kids with a sports teamwork environment, but more than that, we hope they learn how to persevere, have courage and determination, and acquire other character qualities that help them become future exceptional adults in the Lake Nona community.”
Today, Bensey’s youngest son plays lacrosse for Lake Nona Youth Sports, and Bensey finds himself back on the field, volunteering his time at games. “My son loves lacrosse, and I’m happy to help and watch him play,” he said. “Today, when I look at what Lake Nona Youth Sports has become, it’s so similar to what our original group envisioned at that first meeting at McDonald’s. I’m amazed by the growth and excellent quality of the programs, and I’m so proud I could be a part of it.”
If you can help Lake Nona Youth Sports with a donation or sponsorship for a young athlete or are interested in filling a volunteer role, contact C.R.Dunnavant@LakeNonaYouthSports.org. Lake Nona Youth Sports is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and your donation might be tax-deductible.
Valerie Sisco lives in Lake Nona and is the author of the blog, gracewithsilk.com.