Wisconsin student athletes give back to the community

by Maija Inveiss

From syringes full of paint to food drives to hospital visits to elementary school readings, Badgers Give Back exemplifies community service and outreach to the surrounding Madison area.

Badgers Give Back, founded in September 2012, was designed to increase community involvement of the student-athletes in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Athletic Department. Student-athletes take the time out of their busy schedules to volunteer and to create special relationships with fans especially children.

During its second year of existence, UW-Madison student-athletes volunteered 8,124 hours of time towards community service efforts as well as conducted 280 different public appearances.

Badgers Give Back focuses on four main goals: education, mentorship, helping hand and health and wellness. Through these goals, the athletic department hopes to enrich and develop relationships with fans.

Men’s Hockey forward Cameron Hughes plays games with the kids attending the children’s event.  Photo by: Rebecca Meldman
Men’s Hockey forward Cameron Hughes plays games with the kids attending the children’s event.
Photo by: Rebecca Meldman

Kayla Gross, the Community Relations Coordinator for the athletic department, started the program as a junior undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She completed a directed study project about community involvement and athletic departments and brought it to her supervisor.

Gross, who began to work for the athletic department as a freshman, unveiled the Badgers Give Back program as a senior on top of her additional school work. Throughout the program’s existence, Gross has been able to watch it take shape and grow.

“We wanted fans to see that human side of our student athletes,” Gross said. “Badgers Give Back is the athletic department’s extension of the Wisconsin Idea. It really comes down to service and extending what we are doing here to the boundaries of the state.”

Before Badgers Give Back, the athletic department was constantly flooded with requests of athlete appearances. Through the program, Gross hoped to showcase the dedication of the athletes to community service.

There is no requirement for student athletes to volunteer or participate in community service, but Gross hoped that they would want to get involved when the program launched. She said the student-athletes are some of the busiest students on campus and they did not need to spend hours working, but still the program continues to flourish.

“As a student athlete because you have so much on your plate, it’s very easy to be immersed in that,” Gross said. “This helps them understand live outside of that sphere in which we live here in athletics.”

In Gross’ office, there are photos lined up along the wall of children and athletes, the people she lovingly calls “her kiddos”. For Gross, it is rewarding to see that Badgers Give Back creates relationships that last way beyond the events.

“To see how much we’ve grown and how much the public has bought in and grown to love the program, it fascinates me every day,” Gross said.

Some of the well-know athletes on campus have participated in Badgers Give Back events. Last year, one of the most talked about stories was about a little girl named Lucy who touched the hearts of the men’s hockey team. Joel Rumpel, Tyler Barnes, Nic Kerdiles and Mark Zengerle all reported to the Wisconsin State Journal that their experiences with Lucy provided them with perspective and understanding.

Many times the athletes will form special bonds with the kids and create long-lasting friendships through the different programs.

One of the programs is Flat Bucky, an initiative for students in third grade classrooms to watch an athlete’s day-to-day activities on Instagram. Though the athletes might not be able to directly visit the classroom, the elementary students can still feel connected to them as they travel to games and around campus. All of the programs impact different groups of people and help spread the community outreach efforts of the student athletes.

A little boy looks on to the crowd at the Badger Kid’s Fair on April 25.  Photo by: Rebecca Meldman
A little boy looks on to the crowd at the Badger Kid’s Fair on April 25.
Photo by: Rebecca Meldman

One of the many programs and events held through Badgers Give Back is Caleb’s Pitch, a non-profit organization that tries to create positive experiences for kids in the hospital. Tim Jacobbe, the founder of Caleb’s Pitch created the organization in honor of his nephew Caleb, who passed away from cancer at 8 years old.

The main activity through Caleb’s Pitch is syringe art, an activity where kids can take syringes full of paint and squirt them out on to a canvas. Jacobbe said that Caleb completed 31 syringe art painting three days before he passed away, so it evolved into the signature activity for the organization.

Tommy Schofield, a sophomore on the men’s golf team, volunteered recently at a Caleb’s Pitch syringe art event. He said the kids stand 10-12 feet away from the canvas that an athlete holds in an attempt to cover the canvas with paint.

At first, the kids will be shy, but once they warm up to the athlete, they will get better at shooting, Schofield said. Although, he was hit in the face and covered in paint, his experience was entertaining and fun.

According to Schofield, the best part about volunteering for the event was seeing the kids laugh and smile even though they are going through tough times at the hospital.

“Just seeing them smile is extremely rewarding because you know you’re the reason why in these 15 to 30 minutes, they are enjoying life, having a good time,” Schofield said.

By having the athletes join in on the syringe art festivities, the organization was able to add Caleb’s love of sports into the experience. According to Jacobbe, not only do the athletes benefit from the experience, but the kids’ days are immediately brightened through the events.

“It’s pretty special to have someone that is a Division I athlete at the University of Wisconsin come and visit them,” Jacobbe said.

The kids see the athletes as heroes and people to look up to. Through the syringe art events, some athletes create strong relationships with a child and take the time to visit them outside of the event, according to Jacobbe.

He credits the inspiration and goals of Caleb’s Pitch to Caleb’s parents, John and Tammie. His parents tried to make sure that Caleb had a positive experience in the hospital while he was battling his illness. Through Badgers Give Back, those similar activities bring joy to other children in Madison.

“Our goal is to allow kids to have fun while they are in the hospital for horrible things,” Jacobbe said. “It just makes you feel good to know that someone cares. They know that lots of people care about them, even people who don’t know them, care about them.”

Click on the photo below to see how the athletes participate in Badgers Give Back through social media:


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