September 24, 2019

At this sport-based nonprofit, the coaches are clinicians

Boston’s Doc Wayne is reimagining therapy. Coaches are supporting students, on and off the court, as they process and persevere through adversity.

Doc Wayne CEO David Cohen believes in the power of sport as a way for students to connect with one another and their coaches in a safe and nurturing environment. Photo courtesy of Doc Wayne

It’s in my genes to get involved and support others. I remember growing up and admiring my grandfather, who had very little, for being heavily involved in his community and supporting others. That always stuck out to me. Maybe there’s a piece of him that’s living in me, pushing me to be a part of something bigger than myself, in any way possible.

In 2008, I was at a crossroads in my career and looking for something new. A couple years later, I ran into an opportunity with a grassroots nonprofit, Doc Wayne. I saw an opening for a leadership role, so I met the founder, Susan Wayne, and after many conversations with her, the stars seemed to line up. In the summer of 2011, I was named the Executive Director.

I certainly was not a mental health expert or clinically trained, but there were a few lightbulb moments along the way that highlighted the power of what we were doing. Years ago, I was in a gym and there was a young boy who was really struggling, not getting along with anyone, and quite disruptive. I asked him to shoot some hoops, and we shot around quietly for about 10 minutes. Eventually we started talking about school, which led to talking about difficulties and challenges in the classroom. Sport connected us, and that opened the door for a deeper conversation.

Talking to someone is sometimes a challenge, especially for young people. Sport can be a distraction and a connector, creating a safe space to be vulnerable.

We are all impacted by mental health. There’s no denying that. We are all touched somehow by the challenges or trauma, and Doc Wayne found a unique way to connect with kids that is a bit different than the norm—using sport. The impact our coaches have, just by showing up and being a trusted adult for the kids, is magical.

Sport makes this magic possible because it’s a lighter, less stigmatized way to make a connection. Talking to someone is sometimes a challenge, especially for young people. Sport can be a distraction and a connector, creating a safe space to be vulnerable. Sport molded me into who I am today. The values I have, how I carry myself, the lessons learned from my teammates, coaches, and own perseverance—it’s all significant and it was a healthy outlet.

At Doc Wayne, you don’t have to be an athlete or love sport, you just have to be willing to try. The power of sport naturally opens the door for trust and deep conversation. The kids we work with are battling so many challenges: bullying, trauma, mental health diagnoses, stigma, cultural barriers, etc. Doc Wayne creates a space where youth can heal together and grow together, despite all this.

It definitely hasn’t always been easy to get where we are today. Every small nonprofit knows the grind. Seed money only goes so far, and finding a way to grow, support our team, and really change the mental health game means finding the financial resources to make it happen.

Personally, 2016 came with a lot of challenges. I was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and that had a physical and mental impact on my well-being. The physical stuff was managed by hospitals and doctors, but the mental stuff was something I had to figure out—with help of course, but this was new to me. I learned to talk to people, open up, and ask and receive help. Even now, I have to manage the fact that I will always be looking over my shoulder, waiting for the cancer to come back. Making sure I have the supports in place to navigate and process that is critical.

Doc Wayne coaches are able to be that support for hundreds of young people each week. We are coming up on the 10th anniversary as a nonprofit, and it’s amazing to think about how the program has evolved and the number of lives we’ve had an impact on. The challenge is, we are only scratching the surface. We are limited by our capacity and this affects our ability to have a greater impact in the community. I know we’re on to something special. We just need to grow the support for the organization so that we can fulfill our mission, share our expertise, and support families and communities for years to come.

This work is important to me for many reasons. I always wanted to find a way to give back to my community, but never really did. Instead, I was on the sidelines. I don’t need to impact everyone, but if I can make a positive impact on even one person’s life, then, it’s worth it.

Learn how to support this nonprofit: Donate to Doc Wayne.

David Cohen Doc Wayne

David Cohen

Doc Wayne

David joined Doc Wayne in August 2011 as the organization’s first CEO. He is responsible for managing and overseeing Doc Wayne operations while exploring ways to broaden the organization’s reach. He has over 25 years of experience in the business and non-profit sectors—specializing in building partner relationships, while sharpening organizational outreach. David is a former college soccer player and has been involved in sports-based youth development since 2008. He is also the founder of Playing It Forward, Inc., a non-profit which provides sports equipment to thousands of disadvantaged children around the world. Under David’s leadership, Doc Wayne has gained international and local recognition including Beyond Sport’s global Sports for Health Award, the Massachusetts Children’s Behavioral Health Innovation Award, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Sports Award. In 2014, he was selected as a Social Innovator by the Social Innovation Forum in the category of Breaking Down Barriers to Effective Mental Health Services. In 2015, he was selected as a Carmax ‘Bright Side of Game Day’ Community Hero, and in 2012 and 2018, he was the Major League Soccer (MLS W.O.R.K.S.) New England Community MVP. David earned his B.S. from Babson College and his MBA from the McCallum Graduate School of Business at Bentley University.
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