March 1, 2023
A nonprofit youth rugby club fosters inclusion, fun and giving back.
by Michelle Boudin
Jason Zehmke moved from his home in South Africa to the United States to play rugby more than 20 years ago, but he never expected his passion would lead him to start a nonprofit around the game.
“There was one club in Charlotte where we were all coaching, but we felt like Charlotte was too big not to have another rugby club,” Zehmke says. “And we wanted to focus on the outreach part — reaching kids that don’t generally play the sport, while also providing a community service.”
Zehmke, who lives with his wife and their four children in SouthPark, is president and founder of the Charlotte Cardinals Rugby Club. The nonprofit club focuses on making the sport more inclusive and more fun, and giving back to the community.
“Far too many for-profit sport teams churn kids out of the system, and it’s just about winning,” he says. “We didn’t want to do that. At the same time, we wanted to teach them that we have to do more for the community. Giving and community service is taught.”
The club, which is run by volunteer coaches and is open to boys and girls from elementary through high school, just wrapped its inaugural season. As part of the North Carolina Youth Rugby Union, participants mainly compete against teams from the Carolinas and Georgia.
The club hosts regular food, school-supply and clothing drives. The Peter Zehmke Foundation, named in honor of Jason’s late father, a South African rugby player, provides rugby equipment and clothing for all Charlotte Cardinals in need, as well as players from other local teams.
While there is a small fee to play with the club, anyone who needs a scholarship gets one, Zehmke says.
“We had 190 kids last year in our first season, and 50 of the players received full or partial scholarships,” he says.
Myers Park High Senior Nick LeGrande has been playing rugby since sixth grade and joined the club last year, in part because he loved the element of giving back through sport.
“I think it’s great, and it also shows how rugby can bring people together and help make new friends,” he says. Playing for the new club has also deepened his love for the sport. “I wanted to join because I wanted to try something new. When I was playing for [my other team], it was just winning and we barely had to prove ourselves. But with the Cardinals, nobody knew about us, and we wanted to start over and just earn our way up to the top.”
In its first season, the Cardinals are already working their way to the top, with several championship wins in various divisions and 28 players earning college scholarships.
Zehmke says other rugby clubs across the country are starting to take note of their give-back model and replicating it. He couldn’t be prouder.
“It’s bloody amazing to see it starting to reach these other clubs, and it’s such an easy thing to do to give back,” he says. “It’s two loves for me personally — I am so passionate about rugby and getting kids to play the sport, but at the same time, I’m passionate about doing outreach. And it just feels great.” SP
Photographs courtesy Charlotte Cardinals