Nov. 13, 2013
By Barbara Cossman
"Have you heard the joke about the fish and water? So there's this young fish swimming around in the sea and an older fish comes around and says, 'How's the water today?' The young fish says, 'What's water?' It's essentially asking the question of what's in your environment that you don't even realize."
This, in a nutshell, is what community service is all about, and University of Michigan men's soccer senior Ezekiel Harris gets it. He tells the "joke" as a way to illustrate that even in Ann Arbor there are people in need, and as members of the community, U-M student-athletes must be aware of their "sea."
"You go from North Campus to Eisenhower, that's our bubble, that's our water," Harris explains. "But we don't really look into it as much as we should, and I think the Let's Go Do program has the opportunity to shed light on that."
Let's Go Do is the revamped, enhanced U-M student-athlete community service program that officially launched Wednesday (Nov. 13). Its primary goal is to enrich the experience of everyone involved: the student-athletes who gain meaningful, satisfying, eye-opening experiences, and the local organizations that benefit from their time, commitment and passion.
"The goal of the program is to enrich the student-athlete experience and the non-profit partnerships by offering these mutually beneficial service opportunities," explains Angie Howard, the assistant director of U-M Athletics' Office of Community and University Engagement. "That's been our guiding force the whole time."
For years, Michigan student-athletes have made weekly visits with patients at the U-M C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. That has been the face of the community service program, one that has been beyond rewarding for the patients, families, and even more so for the student-athletes. The predominant response to those visits from student-athletes is that they get more out of them than the patients; seeing the struggles children battle with -- from infancy to teenage years -- makes them realize how fortunate they are and how much of an impact they can make "in their bubble" by just spending a couple hours a week with them.
With Let's Go Do, the relationship with Mott will continue, which is clearly important to the student-athletes. The difference now is the scope and reach of student-athlete community service.
"One of the main pillars of the program is not only to put more diverse service opportunities in place, but to ensure those opportunities are in alignment with the interests of student-athletes," explains Jevon Moore, coordinator of the Office of Community and University Engagement.
So how did we get here?
Howard and Moore formed a student-athlete task force comprised of 25 student-athletes across the varsity sports. Over the course of winter semester 2013, they held four meetings to brainstorm and gauge the existing community service options. From the meetings, a survey was created for Michigan's 900-plus student-athletes; about 600 responded -- not a bad percentage and it clearly indicates the passion for and value U-M's student-athletes place on community service.
"We knew from the beginning that in order for this program to be successful, it had to be a collaborative effort between us and the student-athletes." says Howard. "The task force and the surveys were at the heart of that collaboration. And moving forward we'll continue to work very closely with the student-athletes; their continued involvement is crucial as the program develops."
For the kickoff of the Let's Go Do program, Howard and Moore wanted to ensure there were new partnerships and service opportunities in place. They will continue to add additional partnerships as the program progresses. The organizations that were first approached to partner with Let's Go Do arose from what the student-athletes expressed in the task force and surveys.
The new partnerships include a varied collection of local non-profit organizations such as Food Gatherers, Habitat for Humanity, the Humane Society of Huron Valley, the City of Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation Department, the VA Hospital, and campus nature areas like the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum.
Let's Go Do is presented in a way that offers more flexibility and there's no pressure to participate -- one makes of it what he or she wants as an individual and finds his or her own niche. It can be personalized. The student-athletes can volunteer once or they can devote their efforts to an organization they're passionate about and build relationships over time. The Rachael Townsend Community Service Award will be presented at the end of the year as a way to recognize student-athletes for their commitment to the community -- whether it's someone logging a ton of hours with multiple organizations or someone working closely with one to implement true social change in that area.
"With the new approach in place, community service can now be what student-athletes want it to be," says Moore. "They can find their own way to give back. By finding something that is truly of interest to them, they will be more likely to want to participate and give back."
Bryna Oleshansky, a senior on the women's rowing team, has always felt connected to community service. That interest has been enhanced in college with the initiatives she's been introduced to through the athletic department. She is now the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) community engagement chair and is eager to get started with Let's Go Do.
"Community service gives me an outlet that I don't really receive through school or athletics," Oleshansky says. "It gives me the ability to give back to the community that we all get so much from. It's also another thing to look forward to besides just practice and school.
"This new program (Let's Go Do) will create even more opportunities for involvement and more comfort for students who haven't been involved in the past, or don't know what community service really is or why it's important," Oleshansky explains.
"It's more sustainable, and it's easier for athletes to understand that they can be involved in just one project one time a year, but if they want to expand their horizons and expand their experiences they can do that as well."
Oleshansky has big goals for 2013-14 and Let's Go Do. She's hoping "to have some form of involvement from 100 percent of the athletes by the end of the year." She realizes that's a lofty goal when you're talking 900-plus people, but she also realizes community service is a worthy cause and "vital tool for life."
"When athletes do it once, they get hooked and just getting through that first-time nervousness or fear, that really pushes people to the next level," she says.
And the next level is what Howard and Moore are hoping to reach with Let's Go Do.
"There's a lot more to come," promises Howard. "This is our launching point. We've focused on putting a really strong foundation in place and we look forward to watching it grow it from here."