Every parent worries about their children as they enter the world of sports, but many are unaware of the measures that can be taken to protect their young athletes from injuries, which is where the Taylor Haugen Foundation comes in.
The organization was created in memory of Taylor Haugen, a 15-year-old Niceville High School student who passed away from injuries sustained during a 2008 football game.
"It was originally started by Taylor's friends," explained Brian Haugen, Taylor's father. "They began raising money for scholarship and it just developed and grew."
Brian and his wife Kathy both knew that they wanted to raise awareness about safety precautions for young athletes, but weren't psychologically ready until about two years ago.
When the time was right, they started the Youth Equipment for Sports Safety program (YESS).
"What really kicked it in gear were two local injuries," said Brian. "In South Walton High School there was a liver laceration and a ruptured spleen at Rocky Bayou Christian School. That was our calling."
Although Brian and Kathy have no other children, they feel an obligation to educate parents and schools of the importance of proper equipment.
Since keeping kids out of sports programs is not an option — Taylor himself played sports pretty much since he was born, Brian said — providing teams with professional, protective equipment is a major goal of the Taylor Haugen Foundation.
"We don't want to prevent kids from playing the sports of his/her dreams," Brian said.
And so, the foundation has outfitted almost 1,000 athletes from 25 different teams in the Southeast with EvoShield rib shields.
"We want to educate and equip," Brian said.
Brian and Kathy did the necessary research that led them to EvoShield. Through grants from St. Joe Community Foundation and local fundraising, they've set out to cover the entire local region in protective gear, with sights set on expanding nationwide.
"We've had some requests from California and have provided to teams in Memphis and Birmingham," Brian said.
The rib shields, Brian notes, are worn by professional football players, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III uses them. The shields provide extra padding in the right and left side of the ribs and they're three times more efficient than traditional gear.
"They're also lightweight and breathable, so it feels like part of your T-shirt," he said. "If we would've known they were available, my son would've worn them."
On Tuesday, Walton Middle School was the latest recipient of the rib shields. After Walton High School raised half of the funds to be outfitted in EvoShields, there was money left to provide for another school. The rib shield's retail cost is $89.99.
"Walton High School raised $3,000 at a football player fashion show," Brian said. "That's the first time a school has done that. So we elected to pay it forward as a thank you to the school."
Freeport Middle School is the only Walton County school that has not yet been outfitted with EvoShield gear. Brian said that through the Taylor Haugen Foundation, they will continue with the YESS program as long as God will allow.
"My wife likes to say if we can better protect one kid, we've made a difference," he said. "We want parents to be educated and prepared."
For more information, visit http://taylorhaugen.org/