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As Damien Miller walked the halls of Butler Elementary School one day, passing students greeted him with a combination of hells and hugs. The friendly greetings were also mixed with a few grins.
A nickname was even called in his direction – “Hello, lady” One heard a student say.
“Some nicknames are good” he said. “Some are bad.”
A teacher noticed Miller walking past her classroom. She pointed out to him that there was a certain student who could use his help that day.
Miller, Fort Dodge Senior High Assistant College Girls Basketball Trainer and Athletics Trainer for Education and Success, helps Butler as a behavioral specialist.
“I’ll speak to him here in about 10 minutes” Miller said.
Miller graduated from Fort Dodge Senior High in 2014. He has been training basketball in one form or another since school.
“I was introduced to basketball through the AFES program” Miller said. “I played AFES from seventh through ninth grade. Then I didn’t go out for a basketball freshman year. “
Miller said that at this point he was directed to begin coaching.
“Charles Clayton (chief executive officer of AFES) said, ‘You’ve been investing all along and you won’t go out?’ Miller remembered. “So he told me to start coaching. Everyone who knows Charles – he’ll tell you without asking. “
AFES later led Miller to help students find their focus.
During his first year of college, Miller met someone who continues to motivate him to this day.
He met Allison Huss, a student at St. Edmond Catholic School who had excelled at basketball.
One of their first encounters was on a basketball court in downtown REC. The two were on opposing teams.
“She was by far the best girl I have ever competed against” Miller said. “And that’s not even close yet. I was like who is this girl that destroys us? We can’t do anything with her. “
The friendship grew from there. The two often talked about coaching together in the future. Miller even tried to persuade her to attend Fort Dodge Senior High.
“She was one of the few people – she got along with all the Fort Dodge children and all the St. Edmond children.” Miller said. “That doesn’t happen too often.”
One of Huss’s dreams was to play basketball at the University of Iowa. She planned to play at Iowa Central Community College as well.
But she never got these opportunities.
Huss was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma in 2014.
She died that day in 2015 after a nine month battle with cancer. She was 18 years old.
“If she were still here, she would be pretty sure that she would have fulfilled her dream.” Miller said.
Losing Huss was a huge blow to the community, Miller said. And the loss made him question his own way forward.
“When she came by, it kept me from coaching a bit, but then I was like no, she wanted to do that.” Miller said. “I will continue to train and be a light in the community and make a name for myself. She would want that for herself and she would want that for me too. “
Miller remembers Huss as a hard worker and someone willing to help others.
“She was someone who, when you get into her sport, is someone who takes your time in the gym.” Miller said. “Always at REC to work on her jump shot and ball handling. Little girls would come up to her and ask questions and she would be right there to help these girls. “
In 2017, Miller was hired as a coach at the high school level.
“I had no intention of doing college sports until Julius Michalik got up there (to AFES).” Miller said. “The girls I coached at AFES said, ‘Have you ever thought about coaching in high school?’ He said, “We have a freshman position available.” It was an easy adjustment. I didn’t have to worry about not knowing the freshmen girls or parents, so I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take the job . ‘”
Two years ago he became the assistant to the college coach for Dodger girls’ basketball.
During the 2019-20 school year, Miller was called in to help out with another cause.
One student who attended AFES had behavioral problems at school.
“Charles and I went back and forth to check on these kids.” Miller said.
Eventually, through discussions with Jesse Ulrich, Superintendent of the Fort Dodge Community School District, it was decided that an AFES employee should spend time in elementary schools.
Miller spent his time at Butler. His presence can change a student’s attitude in a moment.
“Seeing these children and putting a smile on their faces means a lot to me.” Miller said. “It’s fun to be with teachers. It’s fun to be with the school principals. It’s a good environment. “
One student Miller recently interacted with was Brooklyn Gilliland, 9, who was a fourth grader.
Gilliland said Miller is fun to be with.
“We talk about sports” She said. “Basketball or Patrick Mahomes.”
Occasionally, she can practice her skills with Miller on the court.
“Sometimes we play basketball one on one” She said. “Sometimes he brings us back to class and we play a quiet sit-ball.”
Last Christmas Miller wanted to reward students who behaved well in school.
Students who modeled good behavior had to consistently go shopping with Miller at Target.
One student couldn’t believe he was selected.
“There was a kid who didn’t believe their parents when they said Damien is taking you shopping for Christmas.” Miller said. “The boy said:”No, I do not believe you. ‘So the parents called me and asked me to tell the child on the phone. I messed with him and said, “If you don’t want to go, I’ll take someone else,” and he said, “No, no, no, I want to go.” This is one thing that I will probably remember for a while. ”
Miller said he enjoyed growing up in Fort Dodge.
“Life at Fort Dodge was good as a child” he said. “It was a lot easier than lifestyle when kids were introduced to electronics and social media at a younger age. Children are more stuck in the house. That was a plus for me. We didn’t have that. We always went to Dodger Courts and the REC. This is how we got our friendship, teamwork and our IQ. That helped me at Fort Dodge when I was growing up at a younger age and not having that much electronics. “
Whether through AFES, on the hardwood at FDSH, or in a classroom at Butler, Miller is focused on making a positive impact for the youth.
“Most people don’t realize that as a coach or teacher they can be more influential than parents sometimes.” Miller said. “Sometimes these kids can take a short vacation to go to school or practice basketball.
“If I can put a smile on these kids’ faces for an hour and a half or two, that motivates me to do it. Keep pushing these kids to do better. If we just get here we know they are not on the street or at home in a bad environment. As long as I know that you are here with me, I know that you are safe. “
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