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After losing scholarship, Riverhead grad looks to share her story to help others

As an education specialist and advisor, Anastasia Gavalas has spent her career consulting with families and schools on a full spectrum of issues tied to education. Part of her expertise, she said, centers around diversity education.

She developed a program on the topic about 25 years ago while a teacher in the Hewlett-Woodmere School District in Nassau County. She currently serves as a trustee on the Southampton School Board.

In early June, Ms. Gavalas wasn’t following the news closely when a Riverhead High School senior’s athletic scholarship and college admission to Marquette University was revoked in the wake of a racist message posted on social media following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

A mutual friend suggested to Ms. Gavalas that she connect with the student, Leah Zenk, to see if there was a way she could help her navigate the fallout and figure out how to learn from what happened and move forward.

“[Ms. Zenk] was really looking to understand everything about how she got herself into it and then taking full responsibility for it,” Ms. Gavalas said in a recent interview.

Ms. Zenk, who graduated from Riverhead in June, met with Ms. Gavalas and the two quickly got to work. At the forefront was the goal of deconstructing her ideas, examining why the situation happened and the thought process that led to it.

They began weekly one-on-one sessions. 

“It was intense work,” said Ms. Gavalas, who knew of Ms. Zenk before the controversy “a little bit” since she’s friendly with one of her kids. “It was like the work that children did in my class and really look at our beliefs and bringing about self-awareness and looking at diversity and diverse perspectives and analyzing them.”

As the sessions continued, Ms. Zenk realized more students could benefit from what she was learning in an age where young people are absorbed into social media. She said she had never considered teaching kids as something she would do. 

“Working with Anastasia has been one of the most transformational experiences I’ve ever had,” Ms. Zenk wrote in an email in response to written questions. “In school, we learn English, math, science and some history, but we don’t necessarily learn about everyday experiences. I believe education isn’t focused enough on the most important social issues at hand.”

Ms. Zenk, who was a standout lacrosse goalie for the Blue Waves, told Ms. Gavalas that she would like to develop a program where she could help teach younger student-athletes, using her own experience as a cautionary tale. Together, they developed Beyond the Huddle, a free program of workshops aimed at helping kids “to gain greater self-awareness, an understanding of diversity and ultimately to be more responsible and empathetic citizens,” Ms. Zenk said.

“I am a different person today than I was even five months ago, and for that I’m grateful.”

Leah Zenk

Ms. Gavalas described it as a “unifying program targeting young athletes.”

Ms. Zenk said she was nervous at first to share her story. She didn’t know if people would be interested in what she had to say. To confront the situation required overcoming the embarrassment she had brought on herself, she said.

“It was hard facing family and friends knowing I’ve let them down,” she said. “It was a hard lesson.”

Ms. Gavalas said she can see how her story resonates with younger kids: An athlete with aspirations of playing in college whose path gets derailed by one poor decision.

When they began their first discussions, Ms. Gavalas said she saw in Ms. Zenk someone who understood she made a mistake and wanted to do better by taking responsibility.

“She just kept looking forward,” she said. “She said, ‘OK, I can’t change what happened in the past, but I can certainly contribute someway, somehow to my community.’ ”

In November 2019, Leah Zenk was one of 11 Riverhead girls lacrosse players honored at a signing ceremony. (Credit: Riverhead Central School District)

The program debuted before a youth sports practice in Mattituck. Additional sessions are scheduled in September, including one for a prep school in Pennsylvania.

Ms. Zenk said the reaction from the student-athletes has been “humbling.” When the first workshop ended, two kids told her they didn’t need social media, she said. But she added the message isn’t entirely about deleting social media.

“It’s about being kind and responsible with it,” she said.

While the program was initially intended for athletes, Ms. Zenk said other groups are coming forward from high schools and other organizations to schedule workshops. They’ve developed virtual workshops as well due to the pandemic and for when outdoor gatherings with social distancing aren’t possible.

Reflecting back on the Snapchat post that equated the Minneapolis officer kneeling on Mr. Floyd to athletes kneeling during the National Anthem, Ms. Zenk said she is “extremely apologetic to the people I offended.” A screenshot of the post began to circulate on social media in late May, making its was way to Marquette University, where the backlash from students led officials to rescind Ms. Zenk’s lacrosse scholarship and admission just a few weeks before high school graduation. She had planned to double major in accounting and finance management at Marquette.

“I am a different person today than I was even five months ago, and for that I’m grateful,” she said. “I have been blessed with so many new opportunities that I never would have imagined I’d get.”

Ms. Gavalas said the program is meant for the long haul. Any team or organization interested in signing up for the workshop can do so online at beyondthehuddle.org.

Ms. Zenk still hopes lacrosse can be part of her future at some point. She still trains every day, she said.

“I hope college coaches will be willing to take a chance on me in the future and eventually offer me the opportunity to be a part of their teams,” she said.

In the meantime, she remains focused on Beyond the Huddle and trying to share her story.

“If younger athletes take away a deeper understanding of the impact of their actions and words, and become uplifters, then the program succeeded,” she said.