“I wanted to create something to continue her legacy,” says Michael Zuller, father of Elanna L. Zuller, a Pilgrim High School student who died in a car accident on Aug. 31 at the age of 16.
Zuller passed away in the crash with her classmate, Bella DiPalma. The girls were on their way home from visiting Mercy Brown’s grave in Exeter with two other friends.
Michael, along with his wife, Holly, and children, Jacob, 12, and Isabella, 6, as well as other members of their family and closest friends, formed the Elanna L. Zuller Memorial Sports Fund shortly after her death. So far, the fund has raised $10,000 through various events.
The goal of the fund is to support the advancement of education, foster national sports competition, and contribute to local charities. Michael said the plan is to award college scholarships to Pilgrim mock trial students and assist underprivileged youth who want to participate in sports but struggle to do so because of financial reasons. Elanna was part of the debate team, as well as the soccer and lacrosse teams.
“We want to help individual children in the community, such as those who play soccer locally,” said Michael. “Maybe we can pay for their registration or buy them some cleats. If they’re on a travel team and they can’t afford to go away for a game, we can help.”
While details for the scholarship are yet to be determined, the Zuller family made a $1,000 donation to Project GOAL (Greater Opportunity for Athletes to Learn), a non-profit organization that motivates more than 80 children from nearly 20 middle schools and high schools in Central Falls, Providence and Pawtucket to focus on academics through sports, mainly soccer.
The program kicked off eight years ago and takes place after school. It encourages children to stay off the streets, as they spend an hour and a half tutoring with accredited teachers. After they complete their homework, students participate in a game or two of soccer alongside qualified coaches and professional soccer players.
Recently, the Zullers met members of Project GOAL at Teamworks, an indoor sports facility at 170 Jefferson Boulevard, to present the check.
“Project Goal really exemplifies what Elanna was so passionate about,” Holly said. “We are so happy that we could help this organization.”
Victor Cano, 16, a junior at Calcutt Middle School in Central Falls, has been involved in the program for six years. Not only is he a member of the program, he also coaches younger members.
Before joining, he said he had trouble with geometry. Now, his grades have improved.
“I have a tutor and it really helps me,” he said. “The donation is helping a lot of kids. Instead of playing in the streets, they are getting their homework finished.”
Fourth grader Julian Giraldo, 9, agreed. He, too, has enhanced his academics since joining.
“Project GOAL is helping me get better in multiplication and division,” he said.
Javier Centeno is a pro-soccer player who instructs the children and has played for Miami Freedom through the American Professional Soccer League and the Rhode Island Stingrays through what is now the United Soccer League, just to name a few teams. He is also one of the co-founders and the director of coaches for Project GOAL and said he is honored the Zullers chose the organization to be the recipient.
“They saw a program that can really benefit from the foundation,” said Centeno. “The $1,000 means a lot to the players.”
Centeno, along with Executive Director and co-founder Darius Shirzadi, said they intend to use the money to acquire equipment, school supplies, busing as well as paying teachers and coaches.
“The program is free for the children; they just have to maintain their grades and have a passion to play the game,” said Shirzadi, who met Centeno in 1995 when he was the general manager and assistant coach of the Stingrays. Then, Centeno was team captain. “It’s difficult to tell a child, ‘You can’t play because you can’t afford to be on the team,’ and we want to eliminate that. This way, they can just worry about being good students and good kids.”
He also is grateful for the donation and respects the aspect of the Zuller Fund.
“They are keeping the memory of their daughter alive by giving back to programs like ours that really need help,” he said.
Shirzadi and Centeno said 96 percent of children in the program go on to graduate high school. Further, they feel it makes students more social and teaches them responsibility, as children are liable to bring their uniforms and equipment with them to each session.
For the Zullers, they are pleased to aid less fortunate children. They feel Elanna would approve of their efforts.
“She would think it is great,” said Michael. “She was a great student and in the future, the scholarship will help someone succeed in college.”
Michael, who owns and operates MZ Financial, Inc. at 730 Warwick Avenue, said the scholarship fund will be annual. Criteria, as well as a committee, are in the works.
Matthew DuBois, a customer service representative at MZ Financial, thinks the scholarship is the perfect way to remember Elanna.
“She was really smart, responsible and had a lot of friends,” he said. “She had a good attitude and was very active in sports. Overall, she was a wonderful kid. This is probably what she would have wanted.”
To further keep Elanna’s memory alive, Holly said she has been teaching Isabella the benefits of writing in a diary. She feels journaling is therapeutic.
“Elanna was a wonderful writer and her way with words was beautiful,” said Holly. “She shared with me things when she was 10 or 11 that you would have thought were from a teenager. When she passed, we found a couple of her journals and I think it helped her. Now, Isabella has one.”
Holly said she and Michael encouraged Isabella to jot down her feelings about the loss of Elanna. Because she is only 6, they don’t want her to forget the emotions and memories she has of her sister.
“I want her to remember how close they were and be able to look back,” said Holly. “She’s doing it more and more on her own.”
Since Elanna’s death, they joined Friend’s Way, an organization for families that are going through the loss of a loved one. Through the healing process, they made a memory box in honor of Elanna.
“Isabella makes things and puts them in the box,” said Holly. “She wrote on a piece of paper, ‘We will always be sisters,’ and glued it on the inside of the box.”
Isabella said, “I put her name on it and drew a peace sign.”
To learn more about the Elanna L. Zuller Memorial Sports Fund, upcoming events or to make a donation, visit elannazuller.com.
Also, Project GOAL will be holding a fundraiser tournament, GOAL Cup 2012, on April 7 at Moses Brown’s Turf Field. There will be open and co-ed divisions, plus games and prizes. For more information, contact Shirzadi at 401-258-2300 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the website at projectgoal.org.