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Initiatives Keep Student-Athletes Involved in Community, Foster Leadership

Release: 03/17/2014
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The sharing of ideas, including what each campus does for community service, helps foster growth among the A-10 SAAC representatives.
Courtesy: Atlantic 10 Conference

By Vicki L. Friedman
Special to Atlantic

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – Chili, cornbread and salad were the menu at the Warming House in downtown Olean. St. Bonaventure golfer Dan Dunnigan and his teammate were the chefs.

Afterward, they sat down for a meal at what is believed to be the oldest student-run soup kitchen in the nation and shared stories, laughs and occasional advice.

“The salad, that wasn’t so popular,” he admitted. “But, really it’s a great time for us and for them. At Bonaventure, every single team goes to the Warming House. A lot of teams do it once a month. Everybody enjoys it. It’s part of the culture. We get something out of it and so do they.”

Fordham volleyball adopted a teenager with sickle cell anemia, sending her encouragement via text messaging. George Mason student-athletes are gearing up for Dr. Seuss’ birthday on March 2 with plans to read to elementary-age schoolchildren.

Atlantic 10 athletes run, shoot hoops, row, kick balls, flick backhands and train, practice and prepare for their selected sports. But off the field, they step up to the plate for community service, one of several significant initiatives set forth by the conference’s Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC).

SAAC representatives from each of the A-10 member institutions shared their passion for community service during a three-day workshop at the league’s offices in Newport News, Va., from Feb. 7-9. The busy weekend was filled with leadership and teamwork discussions, and it gave the student-athletes an opportunity to share what each of them does, in leadership, teamwork and community service.

Family, Leadership Lessons Bring A-10 SAAC Together

“It was great to be with people who are just like me. It was an awesome opportunity to be with people who were great leaders, and we could share all the different aspects of leading and have the opportunity to mold that to what we do back at school. We’re so busy, we don’t always have time to reflect,” said Dayton cross country runner Mickey Ludlow.

The community service discussions were an important part of the weekend, giving the student-athletes insight into a critical, but sometimes overlooked part of being a member of a team and a community.

“As an athlete, you have a responsibility to give back to the community because the community is supporting you,” said George Washington soccer player Jane Wallis. “You’re an ambassador for the school. It’s part of your brand to give back to something bigger than you.”

Wallis found a way to intertwine her community service with her career path. In the fourth year of a five-year program, Wallis is working toward her master’s degree in public health. She and other GW student-athletes take part in the Grassroots Project, which educates at-risk youth in Washington, D.C., about HIV/AIDS awareness, resiliency and decision-making using games that teach lessons as opposed to straight lectures. In addition to GW students, others from Georgetown, Howard and Maryland are involved.

“It’s really cool getting to meet athletes from all the different schools. I’ve been involved for four years, and I’ve really worked my way up in the nonprofit, so it’s really become more like a job,” said Wallis, now the program coordinator for her school.

Her favorite part has evolved into training others to do what she has enjoyed doing since her sophomore year.

“That’s been a huge task in the last year,” she said. “How do you get athletes to go and stick with it? How do you balance having fun and being serious? I started training others my junior year, and I’ve been so much more successful after a year, seeing what works so that they get as much out of it as I have.”

This year, the A-10 has added a twist to the conference’s community service initiative. The A-10 Assists Challenge incentivizes student-athletes to commit to community service by having them log hours into a program created by the conference, which tracks service by school. Just as each of the conference’s 21 sports will have a winner by season’s end, so, too, will the schools in relationship to community service.

“You want to do it anyway, but this inspires you more,” said La Salle’s Jennifer Whelan, whose volleyball team joined with the field hockey team for a cleanup effort during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. “It’s going to benefit everyone because everyone is going to do more hours.”

Another plus, added Duquesne soccer player Devon Tabata, is showing the rest of the country the upside side of college athletics. “You always want to show student-athletes in a positive light, because unfortunately when you hear about athletics, it’s often negative. We want to show the rest of the country what else we do.”

The A-10 will award a plaque and public recognition to the conference SAAC member institution that earns the highest point value.

VCU soccer’s Garrett Cyprus said his teammates have enjoyed being part of celebrate!RVA, a group that believes in the magic of birthdays and arranges them for underprivileged children.

“It was started by a 16-year-old kid who thought that underprivileged kids still need a positive environment,” he said. “So she decided it would be great to throw them birthday parties. We joined in, so now they get to have a birthday party with athletes and toys and stuff that puts smiles on their faces. As a team, it’s a bonding experience, and there’s been a growth there interacting with these kids.”

In Rhode Island, several Ram teams took part in the BoldrDash Race, a military style obstacle course 5K with a muddy ending. The event raised money for local charities and most recently benefitted the victims of Hurricane Sandy in the southern part of the state.

“It was a lot of fun; it was our workout for the day,” said Rhode Island rower Abbey Miklitsch. “We also did a food drive. It was something that was really nice, and it was easy for the rowing team. We have the box in the office, and we all come by there once a day anyway. It was just nice to give back.”

St. Louis soccer player Kingsley Bryce said A-10 Assists at his school benefits from a new app that allows student-athletes to see when and where their peers volunteer.

“You see what other athletes are doing and maybe it sounds interesting, so you tag along with them,” he said.

His team, he said, had dedicated its time to help physically disabled kids discover soccer and basketball.

“You help them do the simple things,” he said. “Sometimes you forget just how simple the game is.”

Lauren Skesavage, a women’s soccer player at Massachusetts, noted that her team does a wide variety of community service initiatives, and the team often has a good time participating and helping out.

“We will go to an elementary school, and we go for breakfast. We chat with them, sign autographs. Last year we had a bowl-a-thon with Big Brothers Big Sisters. We raised money for their foundation, which was a lot of fun,” Skesavage said.

Another SAAC initiative that keeps student-athletes competitive off the playing field is a video competition centered on a select theme. “Commitment to Teammates” is the theme for this year’s competition. Videos are completely student-produced, limited to 90 seconds and due March 18. They are open for a fan vote; George Washington was the 2013 winner for its “Evolution of a Student-Athlete” video that garnered nearly 3,000 votes during a weeklong online poll.

While many of the campus SAAC groups are in the preliminary stages of brainstorming ideas --  Miklitsch lamented that Rhode Island’s SAAC meetings keep getting postponed due to weather -- others are further along, though some of the student-athletes are more secretive than others in revealing too many early details.

“I don’t know how much I want to give away. . . .” Bryce said furtively. “It is competitive.”

Dunnigan was eager to share the story behind the St. Bonaventure entry, which promises to be particularly emotional, as it will focus on former Bonnies baseball player Andrew Revello, who died last July after injuries sustained in a car accident. He was 22.

“Dice was his nickname,” Dunnigan said. “We’re dedicating our video to him. Our whole community rallied around it. It was a sad story. We thought he was on the road to recovery and he just passed away. Everyone has his number 30 on their helmets and on their basketball jersey, so that’s the premise of our video.”

The George Mason video will explore how teams create their own camaraderie. “As soccer players, we all huddle together after a goal and give pats on the back and high fives,” said Patriots junior Paige Babel. “Every team has their own thing.”

The La Salle video will focus on a day in the life of a student-athlete, showing just how much time they spend in the company of one another – which seems like all the time, Whelan said.

“You get up together at 5:30 in the morning to do your lifts. We work out together and we push each other. And it builds throughout the day, leading up to a game maybe,” she said. “As you go through the day, you see tons of student-athletes coming together.

In a similar vein, Richmond field hockey player Allison Haas said the Spiders video will hone in on the genuine aspect of teamwork “not necessarily the things you see at practice, but further on when those relationships and bonds really form because you’re on a team together.”

Tabata said Duquesne’s video depicts teammates as extensions of brothers and sisters. “Just like your family, you would do anything for them,” she said. “Sometimes you have situations when your brothers and sisters do things you don’t agree with or make mistakes, and although you might call them out, you always have their back. That’s Duquesne athletics.”

In addition to being Duquesne’s SAAC representative, last July Tabata was named to the NCAA Division I SAAC, was recently selected to represent the Atlantic 10 as a member of the prestigious NCAA Division I Academic Cabinet and was elected vice chair at the national level at the recent 2014 NCAA Convention in San Diego.

 “Nothing that happens in all of college athletics impacts anyone else as directly or more powerfully than the student-athletes,” she said. “I’m ridiculously passionate about everything that’s happening right now.”

Actively involved with Student Council at Worthington Kilbourne High in Columbus, Ohio, Tabata wanted to make an impact beyond soccer and academics. “I fell into SAAC when my roommate and I started going together and I just found myself constantly speaking up and caring more and more about it. As I learned more, and I use this word a lot, I became passionate about it.”

Tabata is particularly enthusiastic about legislation in regards to prospective student-athletes and the recruiting process. It was a time she enjoyed, and she wants to ensure it stays positive to future collegiate athletes.

“We really push to make sure that process stays safe and positive for student-athletes,” she said. “Being recruited is an exciting time. We don’t want the needs of a coaching staff to overshadow a student-athlete’s experience.”

Tabata said SAAC at the national level is also working to ensure that all information continues to flow easily to SAAC at the campus level. “We’ve discussed how to increase and enhance that communication chain,” she said.

As vice chair of Division I SAAC, Tabata can offer input on the new governance structure within the NCAA, as currently a restructuring process is under way. Ideally, Tabata said, SAAC would like an actual vote in decision-making as opposed to the current structure where representatives give input but lack voting power.

In her role on the Academic Cabinet, Tabata represents all Division I athletes. It’s a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly despite all the other demands on her time.

“The reason I was inspired to represent student-athletes on that Cabinet is that a huge push for me is that we are students first,” she said. “I don’t think people say that a lot, but we live that. That needs to stay our No. 1 priority. I’m there to make sure when we pass legislation, that student-athletes are put first.”

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