UA Athletes Give Back This Holiday Season
A group of elementary school students lines up to receive Christmas gifts from University of Arizona football players. The players' smiles are wide, the children's smiles wider.
"I didn't expect this at all," says fifth-grader Americaa Romo. "I knew I was going to go bowling and I knew I was going to meet athletes, but I didn't know there would be presents." Her eyes sparkle as she examines her new Barbie doll.
The football players, Nate Ness, Kris Heavner, Donald Horton and A.J. Simmons, are spending this Saturday afternoon bowling and sharing pizza with 34 students from Mission View and Pueblo Gardens elementary schools, both of which serve low-income students.
On the same day, members of the softball team are bringing presents to a needy family and the day before, members of the men's and women's swimming teams visited a center for homeless children and a women's shelter.
"The athletics department offers community service opportunities to all student athletes who want to volunteer their time to help others," said Phoebe Chalk, assistant athletics director. "As a department we believe it is important to give back to the community that supports our student athletes."
Community service allows athletes to develop leadership skills and interact with diverse groups of people, and it helps them to appreciate the opportunities they have been given, Chalk said.
While UA student athletes spend most of their time outside the classroom on the field, on the court or in the pool, Wildcats from every sport also dedicate their time to serving the community throughout the year, and this holiday season is no exception.
"When we came, their eyes lit up and it makes you feel good." Horton says about the football players' time with the students. "It just shows you there's more to life than football, you know?"
And for the kids who get to spend the afternoon with UA athletes, the visits mean a lot more than bowling, pizza or new toys.
"These children don't have any role models," says Deanna Smith, a volunteer who organized the bowling event. "The nice thing about athletes is the kids can see people who have gotten into college and have done well."
For the children who live at the Grace Home, a house for homeless and needy children sponsored by the Giving Tree Outreach Program, spending time with members of the men's swimming and diving team means a chance to play games and interact with new people.
"These little guys are just looking for some new faces," says swim coach Greg Rhodenbaugh, as two members of the team play catch with 3-year-old Branson in the house's backyard.
Branson giggles every time he catches the ball, his laughter mixing with the laughter of other children and swimmers playing on swings and in a playhouse.
Inside, Libby Wright, director of the Giving Tree Outreach Program, watches members of the swim team play games with several children scattered across the floor.
"These kids need more role models," she says. "This makes a huge difference for them."
Another group of kids and swimmers sits around a table stacked with diapers and food that the team has brought.
"Playing with these kids reminds me of being a kid," says Jordan Smith, a sophomore swimmer. "I just want them to have fun for the time that we get to be here."