What was Toben Nelson, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist who studies the health risks of alcohol abuse and obesity, doing this summer lugging around a heavy equipment bag after work? Giving back to his community. Nelson volunteered as a coach for the Roseville Raiders, a 13-year-old-and-under traveling baseball team that just wrapped up its season by winning the prestigious Gopher State Tournament of Champions in their age group.
In the fall, Nelson will gear up for hoops as the volunteer president of the Roseville Youth Basketball Association, which provides an opportunity for kids in this Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb to take part in organized sports. Nelson says volunteering grounds him as a scientist. It reminds him every single day that his NIH-supported research back at the office affects real lives and benefits real communities like his own.
Nelson is currently studying strategies to prevent alcohol-related injuries and violence. He also works on projects to promote physical activity and prevent childhood obesity. Over the years, he and his colleagues have collected a lot of data on teens and young adults, and they know a tremendous amount about their health status, their behaviors and their risks for excessive drinking or becoming overweight. Still, what’s often missing is a connection to the real faces and unique personalities of young people navigating these formative years.
So Nelson downregulates the keen analytical side of his brain on most evenings around 5:30 p.m. He negotiates his way home through the bumper-to-bumper traffic, catches a quick bite to eat, and is usually in sweat pants and running kids through drills by 6:30. He teams with other volunteer coaches from different walks of life, including an elementary school principal, a technology sales executive, and a driver for a local beer distributorship. Despite their different perspectives, they share a passion for promoting development through youth sports.
Most of all, Nelson values being around young people. He’s learned through the years that kids not only need the support of their parents, they need to establish relationships with other adults whom they can trust—including coaches—to encourage and help them work through challenges, both big and small. Such exchanges can help open doors to opportunities that set kids on the right path in life, mentally and physically.
This summer, Nelson sent one of his own sons to the Mike Muscala Basketball Camp in St. Paul. The 6-foot-11 Muscala, who plays for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, took some of his first dribbles as a kid playing in the Roseville Youth Basketball Association. In fact, Muscala recently visited his former Roseville elementary school to surprise four deserving students with free scholarships to his camp. Muscala explained that, just like Nelson and all of the fantastic volunteers who once helped him, he wanted to give back to the community.
Volunteering is a team effort in the Nelson household. Nelson’s wife, Heather, who is an NIH-supported cancer center program leader and molecular epidemiologist, serves as the vice president of the basketball booster club at the local high school. Heather and Toben couldn’t imagine not giving back to their community. It’s the way they’ve chosen to lead their lives.
Video: Every Day—Toben Nelson (University of Minnesota Health, Minneapolis)
Toben Nelson (University of Minnesota School of Public Health)
Heather Hammond Nelson (University of Minnesota School of Public Health)