Coach Dave Gray Inclusive Sports Camps Inspire Community

It’s hard not to get inspired by Coach Dave Gray.

by The Children’s Institute

Sitting in a baseball dugout at Blueberry Hill Park in northern Allegheny County, he talks about his love for fitness and sports – not in terms of bases-loaded hits, hat tricks, or Hail Marys, but, instead, about self-confidence, problem-solving and, above all, community.

“I want to make it a mission every day to connect with as many kids as I can – and the way I do that is through fitness and sports,” Coach Dave said. “90 percent or more of the coaches out here, they’ve come through my program. They know what to expect. They know what the kids expect. They know how to be leaders, mentors for these kids. And, most of all, they understand that aspect of community – to give back. That’s such a huge portion of what we do here.”

About 235 campers and 35 coaches are taking part in Coach Dave’s recent week-long sports camp at Blueberry Hill Park, which The Children’s Institute of Pittsburgh is helping to co-sponsor, and more are set to attend when the camp reconvenes in August. Coach Dave’s CDG Sports also has organized community camps in Cranberry and birthday parties, among a host of other activities, for the past 15 years.

At camp, kids ages six through 13 will take part in non-competitive sports like wiffleball and kickball, as well as a slightly adapted take on dodgeball where, once hit, a player has to stay frozen until someone pays them a compliment and they can re-enter the game. They also play volleyball, go on sand-treasure hunts, do arts and crafts, and take part in fun trivia games. The camp runs 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for five days; it is scheduled for five weeks this summer.

“We try to pick something for everyone, boys and girls, different ages…and it doesn’t matter your physical limitations,” Coach Dave said.

That means kids in the camp range in ability, he stressed. The camp also includes some kids with autism, who take part sometimes with the help of an aide. This all-inclusive approach to sports and fitness has won Coach Dave some big supporters.

“Coach Dave has a gift in interacting with kids and leading kids. His enthusiasm is infectious and the little details like giving kids a nickname, personally remembering them – even years later – or handing out baseball cards all make kids feel special,” said John Mackie, the philanthropist who along with his wife, Shana, have hosted their annual Party With A Purpose to help support the Coach Dave Gray Scholarship and The Children’s Institute, among others. “Coach Dave Gray’s programs instill confidence, self-esteem, promote a healthy, active lifestyle and they’re fun for kids. We have seen all our kids personally benefit from Coach Dave’s programs. His camps and classes have been a positive experience.”

Coach Dave is passionate about the $25,000 scholarship fund in his name at The Pittsburgh Foundation the Party With A Purpose helped establish. He calls it another example of his desire to give back.

“Is there a young Coach Dave Gray out there who wants to make a positive impact? Do they have a vision to lead kids, to mentor, to make a difference in a child’s life?” Coach Dave asked. “It could be music. It could be robotics. Sports just happens to be the way I do it, what I know. We didn’t want to limit it to sports. I want them to genuinely make a difference.”

Allegheny County offers introductory mountain biking class for children

Cody Pletz teaches children about plenty of sports through his job with Coach Dave Gray Sports.

One of his own favorite sports, bicycling, stands out.

“Most of those (ball) sports, you have to put them aside if you don’t pursue it through college or by the off chance make it a career,” Pletz said. “Biking is one of those things where you can do it (as) a lifelong passion or hobby. It’s something that can keep you happy and healthy forever.”

That idea is driving the Allegheny County Parks Department’s new introductory mountain biking class for children, which began late last month. Over the course of eight sessions, Pletz is teaching children ages 7 to 12 the basics of mountain biking, including safety. By the final class July 22, Pletz hopes the students will be able to navigate a full trail.

“The idea is to get kids engaged in the sport, teach them how to do it safely, teach them everything from the basics of mountain biking safety, what to do if they get a flat tire, how to do trail maintenance (and) all those kinds of basics,” Allegheny County spokesman Kevin Evanto said.

“(We want) to teach kids at a young age to get them interested in the sport and make sure they do it safely. We think it’s a really great offering, and it’s just a fun way for kids to spend the summer.”

Traditionally one of the most popular sports for children, biking took a hit in overall participation in recent years.

According to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2014 Outdoor Participation Report, 13.6 million Americans ages 6 to 17 participated in road, mountain or BMX biking in 2013. That was a jump from 13.4 million participants in the previous year’s report, but still fell far short of the 14.7 million listed as recently as 2010.

Biking still rates as the top sport for participation, with 27 percent of Americans ages 6 to 17 taking part. The report doesn’t distinguish among BMX, road or mountain biking.

Pletz said mountain biking lags locally compared to other areas where he has lived, mainly because of Western Pennsylvania’s topography.

“Narrow, winding streets and a lot of hills don’t lead parents to feel very secure about their kids riding,” Pletz said.

“But I do see a lot of people dedicating time taking their kids to the park or neighborhoods that do have availability to ride.”

Before children learn how to mountain bike, it’s important that they know the basics of operating a bicycle.

“Mountain biking is a little intense because you’re off-roading,” said Michael Potoczny of the Wheel Mill, an indoor biking facility in Homewood. “You’re not on flat (ground). So your kid has to have general skills. Once they have general skills — they can make turns, they can ride up a hill on the street, they can ride off the curb — they’re ready to try mountain biking.”

Potoczny and Pletz suggested children would be better off learning mountain biking from a trained instructor, rather than a parent or friend. Both the Wheel Mill and CDG Sports offer instruction.

When on a trail for the first time, Potoczny advised that kids go slowly.

If not, “you might hit a drop, you might hit a log that’s steeper than you think, and you’re going to crash,” Potoczny said. “You have to be aware of your surroundings. I don’t hit a trail full-speed (at first), and I’ve been riding for 21 years.”

Pletz said it’s also important not to travel alone.

Safety gear — helmets, pads and gloves — are key. Potoczny urges parents to buy proper-fitting equipment, including bikes, instead of purchasing something for the children to “grow into.”

If safety guidelines are followed, Potoczny said, children might be able to develop a long-term interest in biking.

“Mainstream sports aren’t for every kid, but everybody needs something to be passionate about,” he said. “Mountain biking could be that for anyone’s kids in the city.”

Doug Gulasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

Congratulations from Speaker Turzai!

Please take a moment to read the congratulations letter from Speaker of the House, Mike Turzai Member, 28th Legislative District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Thank you Speaker Turzai for the kind words.

North Hills sports mentor inspires smiles

Everyone calls him “Coach Dave.”

Dave Gray doles out encouragement and praise to youths as if it’s his job – because it is. Wearing his trademark light blue, black and white, he shows up to work at what many people might consider the best job in town: He makes lifetime memories for kids through Sports and Courts in the North Hills.

He has a repertoire of games, including some that are originals. He entertains while promoting a healthy and active lifestyle.

Through camps and classes, organized leagues and outings, Gray adopts the persona of a coach in just about any physical activity.

No doubt, sports are his thing. Using Disney as a comparison, he says, “I am not a character, but (sports) brings it out of me. I am in the business of putting smiles on kids’ faces and making them feel good about themselves. It just so happens sports is my vehicle to reach these kids.”

The sports card raffles at the end of the events contribute to the fun.

Gray displays genuine enthusiasm to make each “job” the most exciting part of a participant’s day.

“It’s a fun factor; that’s for sure,” he says. “It’s the most rewarding to see the smiles, laughter, expressions on kids’ faces.”

Coaching since 1996, he has touched thousands of lives.

When kids come to his events, he says, “It’s the kids’ big day. They look forward to that all week. It doesn’t always go their way, and sometimes it’s out of your control. But if it’s based on not getting the ball, or the way you talk to the kids, that is kind of our responsibility.”

Phil Pavely is a Trib Total Media photographer.

Reach him at [email protected].

Hometown Heroes Award

I am so honored and humbled to have been nominated and chosen as one of KDKA’s Larry Richert’s Hometown Heroes 2016. For the past 20 years, my mission has been to serve our community as a positive influence for kids and families. I believe that physical fitness and sports should be fun for kids and adults, and should create bonds within communities and families. Never have I thought of myself as a Hero, but I am just doing something that I truly believe in.

Thank you so much to all the kids and families who have touched my life. Without you and your shared belief in my mission, I would not be where I am today.


Larry Richert’s Hometown Heroes event will be held at the Lexus Club at PNC Park on Thursday, March 3, 2016. Please consider joining me that night to accept this honor, the evening will benefit the Warrior Foundation, a local organization dedicated to serving post 9/11 veterans.

Thank you! -CD

The Pittsburgh Foundation: Coach Dave Gray Scholarship Fund

The Pittsburgh Foundation: Coach Dave Gray Scholarship Fund

In 2012, John and Shana Mackie started hosting what they’ve called their “Party with a Purpose” with the goal of raising awareness for a worthy local ministry or cause.

This year, the event will support the creation of the Coach Dave Gray Scholarship Fund at The Pittsburgh Foundation.  Coach Gray has dedicated his career to working with youth in Western Pennsylvania.  Through his classes, camps, training and other activities, he impacts the lives of thousands of kids in a positive way.  Dave’s programs instill confidence, self-esteem, promote a healthy, active lifestyle and they’re fun for kids.  The scholarship fund will honor Coach Dave and help benefit children from Western Pennsylvania for years to come.

John & Shana Mackie invite you to join them in raising support to initiate the Coach Dave Gray Scholarship Fund by giving online today.  Click HERE for more details on how to donate to this worthy case.