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Volunteer Training

Tennessee program immerses student-athletes in service

Eighteen student-athletes representing 14 teams helped at youth sports camps during a trip to Vietnam. Caitlin Ryan / University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Tennessee rower Jennifer Davis, while visiting Vietnam as part of her school’s VOLeaders Academy, experienced a moment that continues to resonate.

It came as she connected with three girls playing basketball outside a sports facility in Hanoi. Davis lost track of time as they laughed, sang Justin Bieber songs and shot hoops. One of the youngsters asked if Davis had ever heard of Harvard; it was the girl’s dream to attend the Ivy League school and study English in the United States.

More Acts of Kindness

Departmental dedication: Members of the Maryland athletics department volunteered at a food bank, elementary school and day center and served doughnuts, muffins and coffee at the student union during a “Week of Giving.” About 40 staff members participated in this effort to give back to the community.

A special passion: Western Carolina junior soccer player Eynde Frazier comes from a family of Special Olympics volunteers. The parks and recreation major, who hopes to champion inclusive sports programming in her future profession, has worked Special Olympics events at the local, state, national and world levels. She plans to volunteer at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle and 2019 World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Long-distance aid: Grand Valley State tight end Nick Keizer donated stem cells to a man with refractory anemia who needed a bone marrow transplant to survive. After Keizer’s four-hour, nonsurgical procedure, the stem cells were flown to Denmark for the transplant. Keizer, who is working on a master’s degree in business administration, had signed up to be a donor during a Michigan Blood registry drive in 2016 with a number of his teammates.

S.A.F.E. service: The Albion women’s volleyball team continued its community service work at the S.A.F.E. Place Shelter. Short for Secure Area Family Environment, the S.A.F.E. facility in Battle Creek, Michigan, is a 56-bed emergency shelter designed to protect victims of domestic violence free of cost.

“This is when I truly realized the power sport can have. … This goes to show that sport ignites meaningful conversations,” Davis says.

The young girl’s revelation served to strengthen Davis’ resolve to practice the servant leadership and volunteerism that she learned through the VOLeaders Academy. Tennessee’s student-athletes long have sported the nickname of Volunteers, and the VOLeaders program is working with those athletes in making positive contributions to communities in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Davis was among 18 student-athletes who traveled to Vietnam in July for a sport-based service trip at the end of a yearlong leadership development program. The group’s journey began in Ho Chi Minh City and finished in Hanoi. The student-athletes interacted with orphans and disadvantaged youths during sports camps and engaged with athletes at the national sports training center and Paralympic training centers. They also experienced the local culture through other activities.

According to Ashleigh Huffman, assistant director of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace and Society, Vietnam was chosen to open students’ eyes and introduce them to challenges that the people of that country face.

A majority of the student-athletes had never been outside the U.S. before, says Joe Scogin, senior associate athletics director and assistant provost, whose vision for the VOLeaders program led to its creation in 2015. VOLeaders participants also have visited Brazil and next summer will travel to Ecuador. The transferable skills learned in sport and applied in an international setting will prepare the VOLeaders for success well beyond their playing days, Scogin says.

“Our student-athletes have arguably the greatest platform that they are going to have in their life,” Scogin says. “The influence that they have right now may never be greater, and it’s our responsibility to give context to those experiences and help them navigate those experiences with a foundation of servant leadership.”

Scogin credits the program’s success to campus collaboration among the athletics department, the Center for Leadership and Service, and the Center for Sport, Peace and Society. Besides the cultural exchange trip, the other core components are a daylong, off-campus leadership retreat and courses on leadership in sport and sport for social change.

John Currie, Tennessee’s vice chancellor and director of athletics, says he believes the school is ahead of the curve with a program of this type.

“The young women and men selected to participate in the yearlong VOLeaders curriculum program are undergoing practical, real-world leadership development, culminating in an international service trip that many of these student-athletes cite as transformational in nature,” Currie says.

That’s been the case for student-athletes like Davis who have a passion to serve. Because of the VOLeaders program, Davis says she is more cognizant of ways in which she can use her skills, knowledge and personality to impact the world around her. Davis hopes to pursue a career in medicine after graduation, but plans to take time off before possibly applying to medical school.

“I believe that for every opportunity you receive to learn and grow, you should extend a hand out and give an opportunity to someone else,” she says.


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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.