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Coach Palmer mentors students on and off the court

Basketball coach mentors students on and off the court

Some men were selling raffle tickets in a parking lot to raise money to take their little league teams to an out of town tournament. They sold a ticket to a childhood friend but said what they needed most was for him to come and help out. That was the beginning of this story almost 30 years ago.

Impressed with his friends' efforts to help children, Ray Palmer showed up at the Southern Youth Sports Association to help out. That was 27 years ago. He's still here; coaching football, baseball, basketball, even cheerleading.

Lumon May is Director of the Southern Youth Sports Association. "We didn't have a great girls' basketball program and there was a void and a need, particularly with our young ladies. And Coach Palmer singlehandedly started putting girls together when they were seven, eight years old."

One of his young ladies went on to play for Temple University, played professional women's basketball and now coaches at the collegiate level. When he first met her, she was a work in progress, for sure.

May laughingly recalls their encounter, "I remember Coach Palmer saying when Lady walked in the gym, she couldn't chew bubble gum and walk at the same time."

Lady Comfort is now a women's basketball coach at Northwest Florida State College. "Pretty much helped me play basketball, chew gum at the same time. Coach Palmer is just a great role model, just a good person to talk to, random conversation, nothing but laughter."

Everyone has their Coach Palmer stories. Woven into each one are the things he brings to lives beyond coaching.

Janelle Jones is a Washington High freshman. "Dribbling most, shooting but most of all, off the court skills also; being a young lady, protecting my body. Even things that men won't teach young females."

Magistrate Michelle Inere is a fellow volunteer coach. "When they have problems, when they need help with something, it's the first person they think of to call. It's Coach Palmer because they just feel like he'll understand what they're saying and he can make it right."

Lauren Walker is a Washington High junior. " Not only is he out to make better basketball players, he's out to make better people and there's nothing that he won't do for anybody."

Kenzie Hughes is a junior at Pace High. "I knew about how well he coached and how good of a coach he was because my sister played against him and all his players were so good. But, he's such a good person and to find somebody who can coach you up and to be as good of a person as he is, is just really hard to find."

May said Coach Palmer has touched thousands of lives. "He's had the same truck for 20 years that has taken multi-generations of children home. He goes to school when kids are signing, he's signing. When they're hungry, he's feeding them."

He buys uniforms, helps fund out of town tournament trips, uses vacation time from his job at Gulf Power Company to chaperone and he's never accepted a dime in payment. When I asked him why he's stayed for almost three decades, ironically, it's all because of one young man who just happened to have been the very first person profiled on Angels In Our Midst 20 years ago.

Ray Palmer remembers that young man well. "Kids like Terrell Hankins. You know, I would drop him off at home and he'd just kind of sit on the porch until I'd leave and I always wondered why. Well, I found out years later, he had no power in his house. And he was a straight-A student. He would get out of school, come to the facility, do all of his homework and go home and there's no power. And that just broke my heart. I said, 'I've just got to stay for kids like that.'"

Angels In Our Midst is sponsored by the Studer Foundation Children's Hospital at Sacred Heart.

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