November in Indiana means the start of basketball season for high school teams across the state. For local fire departments, November can be the start of home fire season. According to the American Red Cross, most home fires occur in the fall and winter months as temperatures begin to drop and families are finding ways to stay warm. In November of 2019, these two seasons collided creating both devastation and an opportunity to make a difference.
On November 7, 2019, Elwood (Indiana) Community High School hosted Shenandoah (Middletown, Indiana) High School in the first 2019-20 regular-season girls basketball game for both teams. The Shenandoah Raiders held Elwood scoreless through the first half, building a 32-0 halftime lead and finished the Panthers off, 55-12. Shenandoah junior Erikka Hill finished the night with 12 points as the second leading scorer.
In the early morning hours of November 8, the Hill family would lose their home, all their belongings and the family dog in a house fire. Hill, the defending Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) shot put champion and The Herald Bulletin 2018-19 Girls Athlete of the Year, survived the fire along with her three siblings and both parents.
Thirty miles away in Elwood, word of the devastating fire had spread.
Elwood’s Courtney Todd and fellow teammate and captain Claudia Leavell were on a field trip on November 8 when they heard the news.
“My dad’s friend’s daughter plays on an AAU team with Erikka Hill and he found out and told my dad, who told me about it,” Todd said.
Todd and Leavell immediately reached out to their coach, Craig Brunnemer, to express their desire to do something to help the Hill family.
“They were calling me in the middle of the day, and I knew something had happened. It was odd,” Brunnemer said. “They didn’t wait until the field trip was over to make sure it was okay to start getting that ball rolling.”
When practice began that evening, Brunnemer learned that Todd and Leavell had no connection to Hill outside of sports. Todd had competed against Hill in track and field and both Leavell and Todd battled her on the basketball court, but off the court they were strangers.
“We didn’t know her at all,” Leavell said.
“I saw her, personally, like through track meets and everything and other than that, I just know her through basketball,” Todd added.
What they knew about Hill as a person came through on the court.
“She’s a really competitive person, but she’s also very caring,” Todd said. “In a game, if she knocks someone down, she’ll apologize for it and go help them up. She’s very nice. She’s very sweet.”
Todd and Leavell knew enough about Hill to know they wanted to help as much as they could, as quickly as they could.
As Coach Brunnemer was preparing his team to host Wabash (Indiana) High School the following day, preparations were also being made to host a fundraiser for the Hill family.
“We were going to do a raffle, but then decided that it would take a lot more time. People want to give and that’s like 50-50 and getting half. People usually give it back, but we just wanted every penny to go to her,” Leavell said. “We were like, let’s just do buckets. They don’t have to put anything in there if they don’t want to. We’ll just pass it around and whoever puts stuff in there, puts stuff in there.”
Once the plan was in place, the Panthers reached out to Hill, just one day after her family’s house was destroyed by fire, inviting her to their game against Wabash.
“She was very shocked like she didn’t expect it and she kind of like didn’t really know what to say, because we don’t know each other,” Leavell said. “She thanked us many, many, many times and she actually got to come to the game and that made it so much better, knowing that she was there.”
Todd and Leavell addressed both teams and the crowd before the National Anthem and starting lineups were announced. Hill was invited out onto the court as the buckets were passed from one fan to the next.
Wabash is located about 60 miles north of Shenandoah High School where Hill is a standout athlete, but like the Elwood fans they gave.
“They raised over $800 and these girls didn’t know Erikka outside of as a competitor, and Wabash probably didn’t know who Erikka Hill is regardless,” Brunnemer said.
This was just the start. Quickly, schools from across the region were hosting events and collecting donations for the Hill family.
“Seeing the other schools jump in and help as well, you never know if that would have happened if these two hadn’t gotten the ball rolling,” Brunnemer said. “Seeing Blackford, Alexandria and Lapel and the rest of the schools jump in makes me feel good to have these two on my team. Hopefully, it makes them feel good for getting this thing started.”
Todd, Leavell and the rest of the Elwood girls basketball team witnessed the potential of one small act of kindness.
“No matter what someone goes through, it’s the little things that matter in life,” Todd said. “What we did was something little, but it carried a huge impact.”
As seniors, this is the legacy Todd and Leavell are leaving their teammates, coaches and community.
“We want everybody to look up to us,” Leavell said. “We just want to leave an impact and for people to know that we’ll always be there for them no matter who you are.”
The actions of these two seniors have led to more than $10,000 in donations raised for the Hill family through Gofundme accounts and school donations. As honors have been bestowed upon Todd and Leavell for their selfless leadership, they remain humble and focused on leaving a legacy of giving.
Lindsey Atkinson is director of sports/communications associate at the National Federation of State High School Associations.