Grant Lucas

Being the best-kept secret in Central Oregon is not as complimentary as it sounds, Carol Stiles assures. Stiles is executive director for The Center Foundation, a local nonprofit whose services she frequently refers to as “a gift.” And with good reason.

At each of the three Bend high schools, as well as at Sisters and La Pine high schools, a certified athletic trainer can be found tending to athletes in training rooms or monitoring practices or roaming the sidelines during games, meets and matches. The trainers are courtesy of The Center Foundation, which, as Stiles explains, is affiliated with — but a separate entity from — The Center Orthopedic & Neurosurgical Care & Research in Bend.

What a gift, indeed, considering that, according to Stiles, only about 45 percent of high school students throughout the nation have access to athletic trainers.

Which brings us to The Center Foundation, a nonprofit since 1999, being the best-kept secret in Central Oregon — a laudatory statement in any other context, but one that Stiles says does not help The Center Foundation with fundraising. She believes folks generally assume that schools or school districts are paying for those trainers, or that “the rich doctors” are taking care of them.

Wrong on both counts, Stiles insists. In fact, aside from training-related supplies at each school, which are provided by the schools, virtually everything else relating to the trainers — including a “big chunk” of their salaries, according to Stiles — is paid for by The Center Foundation. Essentially, the trainers are paid through donations. And, Stiles says: “We need the help of the community.”

“I think people don’t realize what an amazing gift … this is about a half-million-dollar gift to the community,” she says. “And by it being so quiet makes it difficult for us to raise the funds to keep it going.”

“A lot of athletic trainers (in other places) are either contracted by schools or paid for by the school themselves,” says Emily Tracy, who serves as the athletic trainer at Bend’s Summit High School. “So for us to be a donation to the schools is a huge thing. These kids may or may not have an athletic trainer otherwise.”

Stiles describes The Center Foundation as “any other nonprofit.” She and the rest of the organization continue to grind in order to maintain its solvency. “I can’t say we’re struggling,” Stiles says. “We’re not struggling to keep the athletic trainers in the high schools. But we do struggle to make our budget, like most nonprofits.”

Stiles says the foundation has to be creative in its fundraising. It benefits from donors such as Therapeutic Associates and St. Charles Health System. But honestly, Stiles notes, about two-thirds of the foundation’s funding “needs to come” from public donations.

“Every bit counts,” Stiles says. “A $5 donation is important to us. A $10 donation buys a bike helmet because we also have a program where we teach brain and spinal cord injury prevention to first- or third-grade kids. It’s really important for the community to understand that this is a nonprofit work. It’s a gift to the community. As one of our board members says: ‘These kids don’t realize that they have to live in their bodies forever.’ But we do, and that’s why this gift is so important, why we’re so dedicated to it.”

Tracy, the Summit trainer, is also responsible for serving Culver High School on an as-needed basis. She is in her fifth year with The Center Foundation and has an appreciation for what makes it work.

“It is unfortunate, and I would say frustrating, to have somebody come up and say, ‘It’s so great that the school supplies you,’” Tracy says. “Well that’s not technically true. It’s donations through the community, it’s donations from our physicians, it’s fundraising that Carol and The Center Foundation board (of directors) does. It brings all the money in to pay for us to be in high schools.”

That is not to say that what The Center Foundation offers goes entirely unnoticed or unappreciated. The vast majority of interactions between parents and Bend High trainer Andrew Traut, for example, are lined with grateful remarks and positive feedback.

But, Traut adds, he can see where Stiles is coming from, how the executive director believes the community does not fully realize what its schools are receiving from The Center Foundation.

“I sometimes think that this has been happening in the community for a long time, so I think it’s often taken for granted, which I think is a little bit of a shame,” says Traut, who has been with The Center Foundation and the trainer at Bend High since 2011. “And I certainly don’t fault anyone for that. It’s sort of become the norm in Central Oregon and in the Bend-La Pine school district, which I think is a very good thing. But I think it’s occasionally taken for granted by parents and athletes.”

Dave Hood does not know how many Central Oregonians are aware of The Center Foundation’s efforts. The athletic director at Bend’s Mountain View High believes that if community members were polled, most would speculate that these athletic trainers are budgeted by each high school, whether directly or in collaboration with a local health clinic. In reality, Hood says, “very few of the high schools actually have this as a budgeted item.”

Many folks in the community may not be aware of this gift. But at least the Mountain View coaches are — as is their athletic director.

“I do in particular because prior to The Center Foundation, prior to The Center even being here, I did a lot of the training for our football team,” Hood recalls. “That was back in the early ’90s. What an unbelievable task. I wasn’t trained to do that. You go to a few sessions and learn how to tape, and you’ve got basic first aid, and that’s it.

“We are in a completely different world,” he continues, “and we are so incredibly lucky to have these folks who come in and it costs us (the schools) nothing. … As I talk to ADs around the state and the country, not everybody is as fortunate as we are.”

Not everyone is as fortunate as the three Bend high schools and Sisters and La Pine high schools, which welcome their athletic trainers every day at about 2:30 p.m. after the trainers typically have spent several hours assisting physicians at The Center. Not all schools are lucky enough to see those trainers treat athletes before each practice, to have trainers available on the sidelines during practices and games. Not many are as fortunate as these five schools, where, according to Stiles, a total of more than 10,000 athlete-trainer interactions take place each school year.

“If you just take a few minutes and imagine if they weren’t there and nobody else in the community stepped up to do it, what would the impact be on us, administratively, on our coaching staff and on our kids and families?” Hood wonders. “I can’t even fathom it. More importantly, you look at concussions and head trauma. That’s just tremendously important to have somebody there who’s trained. For us personally, we get a situation like that, we are so fortunate we can just have the trainer look at it and make a quick evaluation, and we have physicians that volunteer their time for some of our varsity contests.”

In the old days, Hood continues, when a player went down with an injury, an ambulance commonly would be summoned. And while that may still be the case for catastrophic situations, the truth is that “99 percent of everything” athletic trainers deal with, Hood says, they can treat and evaluate on the field.

“I know we’re saving lives out there,” Stiles says. “You can’t tell that you’ve prevented a forest fire, right? How can you prove that? But we have enough stories to know of kids who have gone down seriously injured, and without an athletic trainer there, it could have been a devastating event.”

Stories like one from a few years back, when a senior at a local high school blew out his knee during a football game. The athletic trainer recognized and evaluated the injury right away, and an on-site physician diagnosed it and alerted the athlete’s parents. Rather than immediately calling for an ambulance and sending the athlete to the emergency room, the physician, Stiles recalls, simply said, “I’ll see you Monday morning.”

“That saves so much time and money for parents as well as an expensive trip to the ER,” Stiles says.

“The athletic trainers are very helpful, very skillful, and become role models,” Stiles says. “Now I have athletic trainers who’ve been invited to teach classes in the high school for sports medicine.”

Traut is one of those trainers and is in his first year teaching sports medicine at Bend High, a job he says is paid for by The Center Foundation. The “hope and plan,” he says, is that the class will be picked up and sustained by the school district.

For now, however, Traut and the rest of The Center Foundation rely on financial support from the community. With more donations, Tracy says, the foundation could accomplish much more. Unfortunately, she adds, “There’s so much that the community needs to know, but they just don’t.”

Tracy continues: “I think we could spread into more of the schools in Central Oregon. I can think of three high schools that could use a full-time athletic trainer, that don’t have anybody right now. … If we could have more funding coming in, we could have a position that does all rural schools, somebody who covers Culver and Madras and Crook County and, for one day a week, goes down to Gilchrist. There’s so much more that we could do that we’re just kind of bound right now by funding.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0307, .