Liberty Flames student-athletes read to kids on "Hop on Pop Day" in February at Yellow Branch Elementary School in Rustburg.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Serving others is one of Liberty's longest-standing traditions. This story was part of a "Love Thy Neighbor" series from the Summer 2017 edition of the Liberty Journal. The series talked about the many projects through which students display selfless service as they strive to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and obey His greatest commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
For Liberty University's student-athletes, community service is a privilege. On top of their already packed schedules, the Flames and Lady Flames serve willingly and faithfully, making the most of opportunities to reflect the love of Christ to their neighbors.
During the 2016-17 academic year, Liberty's NCAA student-athletes contributed over 13,000 hours of community service.
Starting last fall, Liberty's 20 NCAA Division I Athletics teams competed to see which one could raise the most money in the sixth annual Dollar Makes A Difference campaign.
"Our teams love to compete, so we always try to make it a competition to see who can collect the most of whatever it is," said Jordan Bartlett, academic and student-athlete development coordinator for Liberty Athletics.
The cheerleading squad, which performed "tucks for bucks" around campus, edged out the men's soccer team, which organized a car wash, in raising close to $2,300.
Altogether, teams collected nearly $10,000 and used it to purchase school supplies for elementary schools in the cities of Lynchburg and Roanoke and in Amherst and Campbell counties.
In October, nearly every student-athlete participated in the "Trick or Treat So Others Can Eat" food drive, going door-to-door in area neighborhoods on Halloween night to collect over 6,000 canned goods to be donated to the Lynchburg Daily Bread and Bedford Christian Ministries.
"Teams were claiming whole neighborhoods," said Kristie Beitz, senior associate athletics director for academic affairs. "We've been doing it every year for the past eight years, and this was our largest collection yet."
Members of several athletics teams handed out Easter baskets on Good Friday to residents of Runk & Pratt at Liberty Ridge, a senior living center in Lynchburg. Here, volleyball players Anna Willey and Sirena Vorster present a basket to Evelyn Stevens.
Groups of student-athletes also regularly volunteer at the two organizations.
"When they go to the Daily Bread, student-athletes are cutting up food, cooking, doing dishes, serving meals," Beitz said. "You have people downstairs stocking shelves, moving pallets, mopping floors. It's a system of people doing a lot of different things."
Bartlett said athletes don't necessarily have the opportunity to openly share their faith on every community service project, "but we are able to share God's love through the way that we serve others."
"Everything we do is on a volunteer basis," she said. "They all choose to come and participate, which is one of the great things about our program. Our student-athletes have a heart to serve, and they love to do these things. They are always a positive influence on everyone they're around."
Every other week, a group of 40 Liberty student-athletes visit area schools to help their "buddies" (students whom the schools have identified as needing a mentor). They assist them with their homework, read to them, and spend lunch or recess together.
"Those students are having fewer occurrences of absenteeism and fewer occurrences of behavior issues," Beitz said. "It's helping the students academically because they're seeing greater achievement. Their socialization, decision-making, teamwork, and communication is improving because of the partnership and relationships and influence that they're having from their mentor, who is an NCAA student-athlete."
When Beitz's father died in November, the women's lacrosse team rallied the athletics department to collect over 400 books for Yellow Branch Elementary School in Campbell County in his honor. More than 40 student-athletes, as well as former Flames Football player Kevin Fogg, traveled to the school in February, taking the books into each classroom and reading to students.
"It was very touching and an amazing tribute to my dad," Beitz said, noting that the day was designated "Hop on Pop Day" after the famous Dr. Seuss book and also because her father, known as "Pops," used to go into public libraries to read to children and give them books. "What was so special about it was seeing how the student-athletes were working together and really embracing the whole opportunity … to pay it forward and impact the lives of kids."
Liberty's athletics program will also collaborate with the Club Sports department on service projects in the future. One of the projects will be a book drive, with a goal of collecting more than 1,000 books. Both NCAA and Club Sports student-athletes will read the books one-on-one to children at local elementary schools.
Club Sports teams have already taken the initiative to perform community service when they are on the road.
In March, members of the Lady Flames figure skating team traveled to an intercollegiate competition at the University of Delaware where they spent an afternoon at Urban Promise, an inner-city after-school program in Wilmington, Del., directed by former Liberty Football player Josh Gregor ('09). They encouraged youth ages 6-10 — many from broken homes, living in impoverished neighborhoods — by playing games, sharing their testimonies with them, and treating them to pizza. Sophomore captain Katherine Thacker told her story of courage and faith after her father died in the line of duty when she was 10. Thacker also started her own service project back at Liberty, enlisting more than 200 students to write letters to over 300 families of fallen police officers.
Before playing the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, R.I., in October, Liberty's ACHA Division I men's hockey team stocked shelves and prepared and served meals for visitors to the Providence (R.I.) Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter run by the parents of former Flames Division II goalie Connor Carew.
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