WILTON—For the past 11 years, Our Lady of Fatima has hosted a basketball tournament in honor of alumnus and tournament namesake, Tyler Ugolyn, who died in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. But this year its students are taking their charitable efforts a step further.
In honor of Ugolyn’s legacy in both basketball and charitable giving, Our Lady of Fatima Youth Ministries is teaming up with the school to host a community-wide effort to collect new and used sneakers, which will then be donated to the Big Brothers and Big Sisters organization in Norwalk.
The charity sneaker drive will coincide with the Tyler Ugolyn Memorial Basketball Tournament, beginning Jan. 25 and lasting until Feb. 9. During the drive, the school will be collecting shoes at three sites: Our Lady of Fatima School, Our Lady of Fatima Church and the children’s wing of Wilton Library.
“He found that basketball, while it’s so great a game because there’s so little barrier to entry — you don’t need shin guards, you don’t need a baseball bat — but you do need shoes. And a lot of the kids didn’t have them. Through Big Brothers and Big Sisters, we want to continue Tyler’s legacy by providing something as small as a pair of sneakers, so that other kids can fall in love with the game just like Tyler and so many others have,” said Mara Fleming, youth ministry coordinator at Our Lady of Fatima.
“It’s a great way to honor his memory, and hopefully it’s so successful that it becomes a yearly tradition for us,” she added.
In life, Ugolyn’s athletic prowess was outmatched only by his generosity and selflessness — and that’s no small feat. As a high school senior, Ugolyn received a nomination to the McDonald’s All-America Team. His father recalls one AAU game in which Tyler scored 35 points while being guarded by UConn recruit Edmund Saunders, who hailed from Waterbury. Instead of retiring his No. 34 jersey at Ridgefield, that number is worn each year by the player who best exemplifies the qualities that Ugolyn embodied.
Despite his athletic résumé, it is Ugolyn’s charitable legacy that continues to inspire those from the community that reared him.
While attending Our Lady of Fatima and Ridgefield High School, Ugolyn spent free time volunteering for local charities like Big Brothers and Big Sisters. His charitable inclinations continued into his time at Columbia University, where he started an inner-city youth basketball league for Harlem children, volunteered at local soup kitchens and participated in the school’s annual Columbia Outreach program.
More than a decade after his death, young students are still following in Ugolyn’s footsteps.
“I consider myself very fortunate to be a Fatima Falcon. We really take our motto of Service Over Self seriously—and so did Tyler,” said seventh-grader Anais Salageanu, who is both a basketball player and a member of the church’s youth ministry program.
Salageanu was a part of the middle school youth ministry program that conceived the idea for a new component to the winter’s fundraising efforts.
“He would really happy we’re doing this,” added second-grader Emma Pidel, who is a member of OLF’s Pep Squad cheer team and also participates in youth ministry. “I’m too young to play basketball, but I’m not too young to share what I have and be kind. I want to be like Tyler Ugolyn!”
Proceeds generated by the basketball tournament will go toward supporting the Tyler Ugolyn Foundation, a charity dedicated to promoting youth basketball programs and refurbishing inner-city basketball courts.
The foundation has helped fund court renovations around the county in cities such as San Antonio, Detroit, Indianapolis and Houston.
Every court the foundation renovates is named “Tyler’s Court” and feature a special plaque that reads “I just love playing the game,” which Ugolyn was once quoted as saying. One such court is right outside Ridgefield High.
To learn more about the Tyler Ugolyn Memorial Basketball Tournament, which is open to the public, and the Tyler Ugolyn Foundation, go to the school’s website at www.olfcatholic.org.
By Pat Tomlinson, The Hour
Brian Koonz contributed to this story