While football season kicks off this month, the Miami Dolphins launch a new program through the team’s eponymous foundation to help further give back to the South Florida community.

Twan Russell
Former Dolphins linebacker Twan Russell talking with kids at North Dade Regional Library during a Most Valuable Reader event.

It’s football season and Miami is ready to root once again for its beloved Dolphins. And while the city will cheer the team’s on-field efforts, it’s the untelevised and off-field teamwork that will arguably have the mightiest impact on the community. That’s because when the players aren’t worrying about touchdowns, they focus on touching lives, using their days off to visit schools, raise funds for cancer, feed the hungry, fight childhood obesity, and promote reading by teaming up with local libraries.

It’s all done under the leadership of former linebacker Twan Russell, who, while playing in the NFL, won the team’s Nat Moore Community Service award, given each year to a Miami Dolphins player recognized for his involvement in the South Florida community. Today, he is the team’s senior director of community affairs and works with the Miami Dolphins Foundation, which provides support to South Florida organizations in the areas of education, health, youth athletic programs, and volunteer work. Activities range from preparing meals for needy seniors—in a new partnership with the AARP Foundation, on September 20—to the two-day Dolphins Cycling Challenge and the annual Fins Weekend, a three-day extravaganza that includes a golf tournament, a 1,200-person party at Miami Beach Marina, and a fishing tournament.

“Our organization is extremely community oriented,” says Russell. “We are truly a South Florida brand. People feel they have ownership in our organization, and we consider that a responsibility.”

Twan Russell
Russell gets a little help from the team mascot.

Ocean Drive: What are some new initiatives for the year?
Twan Russell: We’re very excited about a new partnership with the AARP Foundation and our Special Teams Driven by Chevy program (of which Chevy has been the ongoing sponsor). Beginning this year, AARP and the Special Teams Unit will execute events throughout the region focusing on four main priorities—hunger, isolation, income, and housing. On September 20, we will transform our Doctors Hospital Training Facility into a packing station and prepare meals to deliver to over 1 million adults over age 50. Volunteers will include the full roster of Dolphins players, coaches, executives, fans, and corporate partners.

What are some moments that have directly touched your heart?
Just yesterday we served special needs students who spent the day with our players. Our general manager, Dennis Hickey, spoke to them beforehand, explaining that we all have something special to do and that we all have a place in this world. Afterward, a child walked up to me, pointed to Dennis, and said, “I want to be like him.” That’s the capacity our players have—to go into the community and inspire youth.

Twan Russell
The Miami Dolphins Foundation initiative makes reading fun by letting kids win prizes.

How do you help these kids become athletes like the team players?
Through our Youth and Community Service Program. We run Dol-Fit Kids, launched in 2005; it’s a commitment kids make to consider their health when it comes to eating and exercise. They vow to take school seriously, read books, eat balanced foods, and make positive choices. We recently had our millionth kid declare to be “Dol-Fit.”

And how do you promote learning?
We believe that a child who can read can learn anything. That’s why through a partnership with 92 participating libraries in both Broward and Miami-Dade Counties we have the Most Valuable Reader Program. Each library has a game board, and every time a child completes a book, he or she moves up spaces while being entered to win prizes (including a Dolphins Home Game Experience—a VIP day at the Miami Dolphins training camp with a pizza party provided by Papa John’s Pizza). The goal is to keep kids reading all year long.

Twan Russell
Dolphins General Manager Dennis Hickey, team President and CEO Tom Garfinkel, AARP President Lisa Marsh Ryerson, and coach Joe Philbin at the announcement of the team’s new partnership this May.

What is the medical component of the Miami Dolphins Foundation?
I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t been impacted by cancer, so in a collaborative effort between the Dolphins and The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, we raise money through our Dolphins Cycling Challenge (February 7–8, 2015). It’s entering its fifth year and has to date raised over $7 million. Last year alone, we had more than 2,500 participants with 100 percent of funds going toward the cause.

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