GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Griffins Youth Foundation is expanding its mission to help minorities and underprivileged youth have the chance to play hockey.

The foundation, established in 1995, provides a no-cost opportunity for children to be a part of a hockey team. In 2018, the program had some 350 kids signed up to participate. Thousands have taken part over the years.

Timed to coincide with the beginning of Black History Month, participants on Monday met Givani Smith, the only black player for the Grand Rapids Griffins.

“It’s really important,” Smith told 24 Hour News 8 at the event. “They’re having fun. They’re experiencing ice hockey, which many kids don’t get the chance to.”

“Seeing someone that … just letting us know that we can play, too,” Lavonta Crump, one of the black students participating in the program, said, explaining why he enjoyed meeting Smith and getting to ask him questions.

Crump and three of his siblings have participate over the years.

“I hope they take away lots of fun and prolong this in their life,” said Toniya Crump, Lavonta’s mother.

The game has brought Smith the opportunity of a lifetime. He was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings and sent to play for their affiliate, the Griffins.

“It’s allowed me to open up many doors for myself … taken me to places I never thought I would imagine being,” Smith said.

He said he hopes his presence on the ice and sharing his story makes a difference for kids who never thought they’d have a shot.

“If there’s one kid that really thinks of me, really wants to do something like I’m doing, then I believe so, I am (making a difference),” Smith said.

Griffins executives estimate the annual cost per participant is around $500, all of which is covered by donations from the community.

“We wanted to provide kids the opportunity not just to play the game, but to also bond and build those friendships and those relationships that will last for a lifetime,” said Bob Kaser, vice president of community relations for the Griffins. “We just wanted to give kids the opportunity to play hockey no matter their race, their religion their disabilities.”

The Griffins Youth Foundation seeks volunteers and financial contributions online.