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A Load Off Their Feet

Vanderbilt athletes brought shoes to children in Cuba

Georgina Sellyn, a senior cognitive neuroscience major who competes in tennis at Vanderbilt, helps a boy get fitted for shoes during a service trip to Cuba. VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY PHOTO

Vanderbilt University athletics likes to offer unique opportunities on an overseas trip for student-athletes. But this year, the adventure wasn’t just exciting but historic: a chance to visit Cuba.

This summer college athletes and administrators, including Athletics Director David Williams, attended the first official briefing at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, where diplomatic relations between the countries were officially restored July 20.

The Commodores witnessed history, although their project had little to do with restoring diplomatic ties: They were in Cuba to provide shoes to children as part of a partnership with Nashville, Tennessee-based Soles4Souls, a nonprofit committed to fighting poverty through distribution of shoes and clothing.

Vanderbilt took service trips with Soles4Souls to Tanzania in 2013 and Costa Rica in 2014. But in Cuba, the briefing lent historical value to the humanitarian effort. “When we started this, we wanted to be able to take the students to a place where they otherwise wouldn’t go,” Williams said. “Each trip, we look for a service component, cultural component and historical component.”

The group unloaded 14 duffel bags of shoes on the island nation with a backdrop that still paints a picture of a once-prominent nation sidetracked by the Cuban revolution. Robust remnants of crumbling buildings and statues of former dictators continue to remind locals of an infrastructure where economic opportunity remains dire. The nation still possesses tangible beauty, however, and the contingent strolled through the rolling plains, stopping at four distribution sites to give children shoes collected by Vanderbilt athletics, including some donated by Skechers USA Inc.

Each child – including many who live in those crumbling buildings – was fitted with a new pair of shoes, bringing smiles to parents and teachers alike. Afterward, new friendships were molded through music, art and soccer. “I can’t wait to continue to follow the growth of this country,” said Sam DeFabrizio, a sophomore on the cross country team who is studying economics and political science, “and even come back and witness and contribute to the progress.”

More than 700 children received shoes through the effort. The fact that Vanderbilt students also got to witness history was just a serendipitous benefit to the project.

“At the end of the day, the Cuban people did much more for us,” Williams said. “International travel changes lives, grows appreciation and builds confidence.”

More acts of kindness

Finishing with IMPACT

With a little help from a friend, Spencer Ralston of Saint Michael’s College won his third triathlon of the summer, crossing the finish line (56:15.1) with his 13-year-old teammate, Joe Soares, after pushing him in a wheelchair the final 100 yards of the Colchester, Vermont, race. Joe joined Ralston – a swimmer and lacrosse player – and the rest of the men’s lacrosse team in the spring as part of Team IMPACT, designed to partner college sports teams with children facing chronic illnesses. “He is our good luck charm,” Ralston said of Soares, “and we love having him at our games and seeing the smile on his face when he is around our team.”

A cause that cleanses the soles

The College Sports Information Directors of America paired with the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida during its convention in Orlando and participated in the Shoes of Hope distribution. The CoSIDA contingent and partner Samaritan’s Feet washed the feet of the women and children who reside there and provided them with new pairs of socks and shoes.

What’s in a name

Southeast Missouri State University football will don pink jerseys Oct. 31 to raise money for free mammograms for those in need. Donors can bid to have the name of a loved one afflicted with breast cancer printed on the back of a jersey.

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.