Rushing to early morning practice midway through the spring semester, sports conditioning graduate student Caitlin Kennedy's breath billowed out into the cold winter air as she mentally noted everything on the day's agenda—an average day for the SUU senior and gymnast. First up: practice, then an anatomy lab followed by research, then homework, more practice and, finally, volunteer work at the local Happy Factory.
Kennedy is just one of many student athletes at Southern Utah University who successfully balanced rigorous practice and class schedules with community service over the past school year. And even though course loads and team commitments fill more hours than they often feel they have, Thunderbird athletes take off their cleats and jerseys to pick up paintbrushes and shovels, giving back to the community that cheers them on season after season.
“The Cedar City community does a fantastic job of supporting SUU athletics, and it’s so important that we show them our appreciation," explained Kennedy, who said that for she and most of her student-athlete peers, trading precious free time for community service is an easy choice. "Our fans are amazing, and I would do anything to help them.”
SUU student athletes have made a bigger impact through service in the 2012-2013 school year than ever before, creating care packages for deployed soldiers, collecting thousands of pounds of canned goods, raising hundreds of dollars for local non-profit organizations, cleaning up the local golf course, serving meals to the needy and volunteering at assisted living centers, just to name a few of their larger projects over the past academic year.
These efforts have all been organized under the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), tasked by Big Sky administrators to compete against the 10 others schools in the league to help give back to their communities. In two of the conference's largest service competitions—a shoe drive and a clothing drive—SUU's athletes came out champions, collecting 3,409 new or gently used shirts and 2,739 pairs of shoes that were then donated to the Utah Association of Family Support Centers and the Canyon Creek Women’s Crisis Center (CCWCC)
"I hope these students realize that their help is life changing for so many in the community,” said Cindy Baldwin, director of the CCWCC. Baldwin said that increased help from SUU's student athletes has made it possible to increase the number of families and individuals they service.
Alongside the very successful shoe and shirt drives, athletes have also collected thousands of pounds of canned goods that were then given to the Iron County Care and Share.
They also visited local elementary and middle schools, speaking out against bullying and promoting healthy habits.
Of that experience, SUU Soccer Head Coach Becky Hogan said, “Those children instantly connected with our athletes, and something happens in the athlete’s mind when they realize these six-to 11-year-olds see them as role models and friends.”
“Many college athletes get caught up in homework, finances and practices and forget the amazing opportunity they have to be playing college ball," said Head Football Coach Ed Lamb. "When our athletes see these kids getting excited about them being in their classrooms it makes the athletes realize the great position they are in.”
No matter the activity, the general consensus from SUU's student athletes in service is that their benefit is far greater than the time they give.
Said Mike Tagliaferri, a senior communication major and football player originally from Las Vegas, Nev., “Community service has taught me that I am more than an athlete but also a resident of Cedar City. Helping these people has deepened my love for this community.”