Lee Eckert was born into the world of sports. His grandfather was a baseball and cross country coach, and Lee was the youngest of four boys – all of whom lived and breathed athletics.
“I remember going to my brothers’ games as a little guy,” Lee said, “and getting thrown around in the back yard.”
Having a childhood full of opportunity is the reason Lee is thriving as a house parent at the children’s home and as the nearby Elizabethtown Area High School’s new boys’ basketball coach. He’s also successful because his heart aches for children who don’t have the same chance.
“In my life, I’ve had a lot of adults who have looked out for me,” Lee said. “I want to pay it forward.”
At the children’s home, while Lee rotates among the three boys’ cottages, he’s mainly a house parent for middle and high school boys. Some may view these age groups as a challenge, but Lee sees them as a time when a good mentor can make the biggest impact.
He can relate well to these young men, mostly because he knows what it’s like to search for self-identity.
Lee grew up playing baseball, looking up to his older brother, whose talent was extraordinary. Lee was a natural at baseball as well, but as a teenager, while trying to discover his own identity as a person and athlete, Lee fell into basketball.
“I was probably a better baseball player than I was in basketball,” Lee recalled.
Regardless, Lee was a top-scoring player on the Hempfield High School boys’ basketball team, and progressed to play as a top scorer and rebounder at Elizabethtown College, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history in 2015.
Throughout his years as a student, Lee volunteered with local youth basketball camps and programs.
This is where he met then 5th-grader Amos Kollie, a 2019 children’s home graduate, who had a burning passion for the sport.
After college, Lee took a job as the junior varsity coach, then as the varsity assistant coach for boys’ basketball at Elizabethtown. In his career leading up to becoming head coach, he saw Amos learn and grow.
“I got to know him, and he’s kind of one of the main reasons I work at the children’s home,” Lee said.
He had always been impressed with Amos’ determination and demeanor.
“From my experience, kids who live at the children’s home have good manners,” Lee said. “They are outgoing and respectful. Watching Amos go from being a tiny guy to starting in the biggest game in the school’s history [during Amos’ senior year] was incredible.”
Upon Amos’ graduation, Lee learned there was a house parent position open at the children’s home and decided to go for it. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, he didn’t start his position until May.
“My goal is to make sure the guys have someone they feel comfortable going to, especially if they’re feeling down,” Lee said. “I want to build relationships and help them get through things. I was in high school and college not that long ago, so I like to think I know what they’re going through.”
Due to the pandemic, many of the kids’ day-to-day lives and activities have been altered.
Lee has been brightening their spirits with a lot of kindness and a little bit of basketball.
“It’s a good time,” Lee said. “At 3 o’clock, when the guys are usually done with their schooling, we’ll go out and run drills and shoot around. I get paid to teach basketball and work with kids. You can’t beat that.”
However, it’s not all fun and games. Lee has also had to take on the unexpected role of “teacher” in more than just the subject of basketball throughout the pandemic while the young men learn virtually half the week.
“I’ve seen kids struggle this past spring,” Lee said, “but all the staff make it a team effort to come together and help turn it around.”
Lee wants the young men to know that life doesn’t always go according to plan, and taking ownership of how you’re going to react when something unexpected happens is important. In addition, respect, honesty and giving a helping hand will “get you far in life.”
“They have everything they need to succeed here, from help with school down to things like Gatorade,” Lee said. “This isn’t a place where you’ll be sitting around on your laptops and phones all day. This is a place that forces you to go outside and interact with other kids.”
What’s been most impactful to Lee in his children’s home journey so far is seeing new children come out of their shell. He also hopes to keep in contact with the young men he’s inspired, just like he has with Amos.
“My wife has noticed my happiness since I’ve started working here,” Lee said. “I don’t think it’s felt like ‘work’ one day. That’s a credit to the kids and this program, and I’m proud to be part of it.”