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University of Minnesota

Giving back in a big way

September 2, 2010

Track athletes Missa Varpness and Cassy Opitz hang out with three children.

The annual HopeDay Festival held at the U benefits children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses and their families. Cassy Opitz and Missa Varpness, both from women's track and cross country, hang out with some of the attendees.

Photo: courtesy University Athletics

U student-athletes find the time to donate thousands of hours to the community

By Rick Moore

Minnesota football fans may know defensive tackle Brandon Kirksey best for forcing a critical fumble against Air Force last year in the opening game at TCF Bank Stadium. Nate Triplett’s ensuing fumble return for a touchdown gave the Gophers a lead they never relinquished in that memorable 20-13 victory.

Kirksey still smiles at the recollection of that play. But he positively beams when he talks about his experiences volunteering with children when he has a spare moment away from field, the weight room, and the classroom. The junior captain from St. Louis is one of the most prolific volunteers on the football team.

And he’s in great company among student-athletes.

A good year for giving

Over the past year, University of Minnesota athletes have dedicated upwards of 8,700 hours to volunteer activities. More than 610 athletes have volunteered at least once, and on average they’ve offered 8.5 hours of community service apiece. Some, of course, have given much more.

“In the last two years we’ve jumped tremendously in the amount of participation,” says Anissa Lightner, assistant director of student-athlete welfare and the person responsible for setting up many of the community service activities for athletes.

For Kirksey, it’s a chance to pay it forward to the next generation, a group that includes a lot of children who idolize athletes.

“Back home, I never did as much community service, so I try to do as much giving back as possible,” he says. “One of my favorite memories of being a Gopher is just how the kids look up to us and how they aspire to be like us.”

Dannie Skrove is a junior outfielder on the softball team who began volunteering during the fall of her freshman year. Skrove, like Kirksey, loves working with children, and along with gymnast Janell Campbell she’s the co-chair of the upcoming HopeDay Festival—an event where some 400 athletes will give smiles to kids with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

“Growing up, I looked up to athletes. We’re definitely role models for the kids who we do volunteering for,” Skrove says. “It’s good to see their smiles and know that they look up to you, and that you’re their hero that day.”

Finding time in a tight schedule

Lightner says she’s amazed at how some student-athletes find the time to volunteer. She teaches a course for first-year athletes and knows firsthand their schedules. Swimmers may be in the pool at 5 or 5:30 a.m., in classes the rest of the morning, and back in the pool in the afternoon. Then they “grab something to eat on their way to the library or wherever they’re going to study, and then they get up and do it again the next morning,” she says. “And that’s how it is for a majority of our teams.”

Despite that grinding schedule, she’ll have athletes contact her to try to squeeze in a community service opportunity, perhaps on a Friday morning when they could be catching up on sleep.

“We’ll even have athletes that will be in competition over the weekend, and some of them will volunteer in the morning before they play that night. How do you do this?” Lightner says with a tone of disbelief. “I’m just very impressed with their dedication.”

Some of the main beneficiaries of the M.A.G.I.C. (Maroon and Gold Impacting the Community) program are Special Olympics, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and the HopeKids organization. Often, the U athletes travel to their service venue in the M.A.G.I.C. Bus, sponsored by the St. Jude Medical Foundation.

Lightner says that her office sees volunteering as an important experience for athletes, but there is no requirement.

“If you don’t have a requirement yet you still achieve over 8,000 hours, that’s a great culture to be a part of,” she says.

Tags: Athletics

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