May 17, 2012
By Kim Conley, Athletic Communications Student Assistant
Giving back to the community just seems to be in the DNA of Gopher student-athletes.
Over the past year, University of Minnesota student-athletes have significantly increased their community involvement efforts.
More than 82% of Golden Gopher student-athletes volunteered at least once in the past year. Although athletes volunteered for roughly the same number of events as the previous year, their total volunteer efforts improved by a respectable 2,117 hours.
The Department of Student-Athlete Affairs at the University of Minnesota is committed to community outreach, career development, and personal development of its student-athletes.
"We strive to build and develop great leaders," Anissa Lightner said. Lightner is the Assistant Director of Student-Athlete Affairs.
Between April 1, 2011 and April 30, 2012, student-athletes volunteered for a total of 12,147.9 hours. The Student-Athlete Affairs Department organized 223 events, resulting in 4,714.5 hours of community service. Athletes contributed an additional 7,433.4 hours through their own volunteering efforts.
"Student-athletes are not required to volunteer for events," Lightner said. "Rather, they are part of a culture that encourages involvement and creates opportunities for teams and individuals."
There are a variety of events throughout the year for which athletes can volunteer their time. Opportunities range from reading to elementary students, visiting children in hospitals, helping with fundraising efforts for cystic fibrosis, and educating children on living a tobacco-free lifestyle.
Student-athletes volunteer for events through an online system where they can view and sign up for events online. Events are updated weekly, so they can easily see which ones fit into their academic and training schedules.
Some of the key programs run by the Department of Student-Athlete Affairs include a tobacco-free program, a reading program that focuses on goal-setting and excelling in the classroom, and an "Exercise your Heart and Mind" campaign, which promotes women in the fields of math and science.
Also, their "Eat Smart, Play Hard" program was recently revamped by Josh Hall (men's swimming) and Lucy Ennis (women's gymnastics). "Eat Smart, Play Hard" works to combat childhood obesity by promoting exercise among children as well as educating them on healthy snack choices.
"The program is more kid-friendly and interactive now, with more engaged activities," Lightner said. "Josh and Lucy made videos, dances, and have really worked hard to make the program fun and memorable for the kids. Their efforts and development make me very proud."
In addition, Student-Athlete Affairs works with the Boys and Girls Club and the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, where current and former student-athletes act as mentors to children in need. They also do a lot work with HopeKids, an organization that reaches out to children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. They are responsible for setting up fun events like an annual HopeKids Day on campus each September as well as private movie and play screenings.
Camp Odayin is a particularly special event for senior Nathan Jobe, a member of the men's swimming and diving team. Camp Odayin is a camp for children with heart disease. It is a full-day event that takes place in Northern Minnesota in August. About 10 student-athletes take a bus to volunteer at the camp. They play outdoor games with the children, swim and eat lunch with them, and hand out prizes and sign autographs.
"This community outreach experience was by far my favorite," Jobe said. "I got to act like a kid again and be a role model for young children. I had the privilege of sharing my story of how I became successful in academics and athletics. My hope was to inspire these children with life-threatening illnesses to dream big and not let any obstacle get in their way."
Volunteering for these kinds of events may benefit student-athletes more than they realize. It is also an opportunity to network with people in different fields and build connections. But learning important career lessons is really just a bonus. The underlying message is the importance of community involvement and realizing the unique and influential position that student-athletes have as positive role models.
"I think it's very important for student-athletes to volunteer in the community," Jobe said. "First, it is a way to give back to the local community for all of their support and contributions. Second, we get to act as role models to children and community members. Young children truly look up to us. It is important to emphasize to them the importance of academics and staying physically active. We can make a difference in their lives."
"We work hard to encourage a culture of giving back among our student-athletes," Lightner said. "We are blessed to attend such a great university, and it is part of our duty to give back to the community."