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FAYETTEVILLE - As we move through the holidays past Thanksgiving and now Christmas, many organizations geared up to help those in our communities who may not be able to celebrate the season as fortunately as others.
The ringing bells of Salvation Army volunteers can be heard outside retail establishments while some participate in Operation Homefront for military personnel serving overseas or donate to the Make a Wish Foundation.
For Razorback student-athletes, giving back to the community is a year-long focus. In 2011-12, Razorback student-athletes volunteered a record 6,052 hours for 108 agencies, organizations and schools. This school year, the Razorbacks are already ahead of last year's record-setting pace, including many outreach and community service projects designed to help others enjoy the holidays.
A group of student-athletes spent part of the day on Nov. 14 at the Homestyle Assisted Living Center in Springdale, helping residents enjoy their Thanksgiving meal.
Rodger Hunter, who is the student-athlete development coordinator in the Office of Student-Athlete Success, has organized the visit for the last 11 years. In 2000, he wanted Razorback student-athletes to do something for the elderly members in our area.
"My first thought was, 'what can we do for Thanksgiving?'" Hunter says. "I looked in the phonebook and the Homestyle Assisted Living Center stood out to me. I gave them a call and shared my thoughts. The following year, we took a group of student-athletes to visit and the rest is history."
The yearly visits include serving meals, eating together and more importantly, visiting with the residents.
"This was the most interactive visit we've had so far to the Homestyle Assisted Living Center," Hunter says. "Every student-athlete who attended made sure the residents know that we care about them and wanted them to have a great Thanksgiving. They all took pictures and signed autographs, and interacted with the residents like they are their grandparents."
The Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) spearheaded the effort with 13 total student-athletes participating. Blake Baxendale and Brian Heldman from the baseball team participated, along with Emily Podzielinski and Kayli Quinton from women's golf, Kolton Crawford, Joe Doramus and William Meason from men's golf, Noah Kittelson and Leoman Momoh from men's track and field, and Stephanie Canfield, Whitney Cloer, Hope McLemore and Clarisa Navarro from softball.
"I've done this for the last two years," Podzielinski, a senior from Noblesville, Ind., says. "It's something I really look forward to, and I can tell that they do as well."
"Our student-athletes were not shy," Hunter says. "Of the 30 to 40 residents, they all had at least one Razorback sit at their table for dinner. The residents treated them like they were their own grandchildren. Our young men and women got a lot out of this and really feel like they gave something back. I really think it reminded them of spending time with their grandparents."
In early December, another group of Razorback student-athletes helped nine area elementary students have a Merry Christmas by helping them shop for toys at Toys-R-Us.
The elementary students were selected by counselors from their schools.
In 2011, nine area youth were able to spend $100 on toys, and they each received a new winter coat and a $25 gift card from Harps Stores to purchase groceries. SAAC committee members collected more than $1,400 for last year's project.
Kelci Lewis, a senior gymnast from Collinsville, Okla., is the chairperson of the SAAC Community Service Committee. Lewis, who helped her team reach the Super Six in 2012, participated in the Christmas Shopping with Razorback SAAC project in 2011 and coordinated the event this year.
"This is important to me because I know how much Christmas means to me and I love that I can share that feeling with kids," Lewis says. "My motivation for getting involved is the feeling you get when you see the smiling faces on those kids when they finally get presents. They are so thankful."
One student between the first and fifth grades is selected by counselors from Asbell, Washington, Holcomb, Butterfield, Owl Creek, Happy Hollow, Leverett, Root and Vandergriff elementary schools.
SAAC members collected donations to cover the expenses.
"The student-athletes raised money by asking a teammate for change in any amount," Hunter says. "The winter coats were donated from Walmart and with the leftover money, we purchased the gift cards from Harps because we don't want those children to wake up on Christmas morning with a toy and no food."
"The money was raised by having the SAAC reps from each sport go to their teammates and collect money," Lewis says. "Student-athletes and coaches are very generous with their donations and it helps the kids a lot. This year we had a fundraiser at Chick-fil-A. A percentage of the proceeds went to the shop with SAAC budget."
The project raised $1,395 for 2012, meaning the children once again received the $100 gift card from Toys-R-Us and the $25 card from Harps along with a coat. The remaining $270 will go to a charity organization selected by SAAC members at a later day.
Other student-athletes participating in the Christmas project included Brandon Moore from the baseball team, Jasmine Norton from volleyball, Erin Gatling from women's basketball, Emily Tubert from women's golf, Daunte Carr from football and McLemore from softball, among many others. Each child had at least two Razorbacks helping in the selection of toys.
"All of the student-athletes love this experience," Lewis says. "We really get to know the kids who we are shopping with and help find presents that match their personalities. It's easy to get other student-athletes involved. Everyone wants to help whenever their schedules allow them to."
"My motivation is the kids," Moore says. "I have yet to know what it's like to not have a Christmas. I can't imagine not helping a young kid. It breaks my heart to think there are thousands of kids who may not have a Merry Christmas. If I can do something to help, I'm going to. SAAC gives us a great opportunity to help. One of my spiritual gifts is as a helper and I like to help people."
For the Razorbacks, being a role model is just part of the experience of competing at Arkansas.
"Kids do look up to us a lot," Lewis says. "I love going back home and having all the kids and my previous coaches ask about how things are going and what it's like to be a student-athlete. Kids want to be just like us and are inspired by the hard work we put into everything."
Hard work is definitely required, but there's also time for play, and that's the joy of the shopping trip.
Last year, popular selections at Toys-R-Us were mp3 players and video games, and for girls, just about anything with Justin Bieber on it. Those items are fun, but the shopping trip is more about meeting needs.
"Last year, my girl was really excited about the Justin Bieber stuff," Lewis says. "But the kids appreciate the coats almost more than anything. I know that this year one of the boys is giving his coat to his younger sister."
This year, Moore and McLemore shopped with Jaedon, who selected SpyNet items, including a pair of glasses that allow you to see behind yourself.
"I don't know how they work," Moore says, "but they seemed pretty cool."
For Lewis, serving as the Community Service chairperson may have a direct impact on her career path.
"As the liaison, I communicate with Rodger about upcoming events and then share that information with the SAAC group," she says. "I also recruit people who would like to attend each event and relay those names to Rodger. My role has increased lately. I love being the liaison because I get to work with Rodger and communicate with my fellow student-athletes. I wanted this position because I was already doing this for my gymnastics team. I plan to find a job doing something similar to this."
Helping area children make special Christmas memories is a perk to any job. For Moore and Lewis, favorite memories are simple.
"Waking up every Christmas morning and getting to spend it with my family is my favorite memory," Moore says. "Christmas is generally a time that the whole family gets to spend together. It's awesome to get together and really mediate on the real meaning of Christmas."
"My favorite memories are just getting to go home and spend time with my family," Lewis says. "It is always nice to have everyone together because it only happens once a year."
For Hunter, the SAAC shopping trip is a special memory every year.
"These children think that we are Santa showing up early," he says. "They make me so very happy when I see the big smiles on their faces. I see these kids in the community from time to time and they don't forget. They thank me for what the Razorbacks did for them all of the time."