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Make-A-Wish CEO helps strengthen DII connection

By Josh Looney

David Williams saw his Division II student-athlete experience come full circle in 2013 when he participated in numerous events that brought him closer to the division’s 109,000 student-athletes.

The 1981 Bloomsburg University alum and former Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference tennis champion currently serves as president and chief executive officer of Make-A-Wish. It’s through that leadership role that Williams has formed a unique bond with student-athletes who compete in Division II athletics events more than 30 years after Williams appeared in his final collegiate match.

“I’m not quite sure how I’d fare out there in today’s college game,” Williams joked during a Division II president’s brunch at the 2013 Men’s Final Four in Atlanta. “We were still playing with wooden tennis rackets when I was competing at Bloomsburg.”

Competition is the common denominator linking Williams’ nonprofit organization to current Division II student-athletes, as the division raised more than $517,000 for Make-A-Wish during the 2012-13 academic year. Fundraisers were student-athlete driven and coincided with many Division II athletics events.

“It’s unbelievable,” Williams said of the fundraising efforts. “That money is raised from students who are doing it by holding car washes, penny drives or collecting money for promotions at athletics events. It’s just a dollar here and a dollar there, and for student-athletes to lead that kind of fundraising across Division II athletics is just amazing.”

Division II began its alliance with Make-A-Wish in 2003 when DII SAAC member and Bentley volleyball player Nicole (DeBlois) Semeraro helped create a vision to align community efforts across all Division II institutions. Division II has seen steady growth of the partnership each year, but the initiative began to reach new levels when Williams became president and CEO in 2005.

“I think a lot of Division II student-athletes know people who have been impacted by the power of a wish,” Williams said. “Many already have a sense of what Make-A-Wish is about and they want to do something to help out.

“Make-A-Wish gives kids the opportunity to think beyond their illness. They’ve been competing. They’ve been competing for their lives, and these wishes are something that they’ve been looking forward to. It’s just a great celebration of life.”

In 2013, the DII SAAC outlined a goal of building a deeper relationship with the former tennis player who leads Make-A-Wish. The group of student-athlete leaders began those efforts by inviting Williams to attend one of its quarterly meetings in Indianapolis.

Williams obliged, and then took relationship much further.

In addition to attending a Division II SAAC meeting, Williams joined two Make-A-Wish families that Division II hosted at the 2013 Final Four in Atlanta. While there, he addressed a group of Division II presidents, commissioners, athletics administrators and student-athletes prior to the Division II Men’s Basketball Championship.

In the fall, Williams attended a nationally televised football game at his alma mater to accept a check from SAAC’s 2012-13 fundraising efforts. But most important, as a result of those 40th Anniversary interactions, Williams has upped the ante for Division II student-athletes.

For 2014, Make-A-Wish is adding a new element to the partnership by matching every dollar that a Division II institution raises beyond its 2013 total; up to $1,000 per institution. Make-A-Wish is also working with top fundraising Division II institutions on hosting “wish reveal” parties for Make-A-Wish families.

“I don’t know if David knows this or not, but he’s made a tremendous impact on the student-athletes he’s interacted with over the past year,” said Division II SAAC chair Bradley Maldonado, a cross country student-athlete at Lincoln Memorial University. “David is a prime example of continuing to live out the core characteristics of the Division II student-athlete experience once our playing days are behind us.”

Williams has served as a commencement speaker at Bloomsburg and remains an active supporter of the institution. In November, he returned to Bloomsburg with Huskies tennis alumni to help launch the Burt Reese Tennis Campaign - an endowed program to fund both scholarships and discretionary spending such as facility upkeep and team travel.