Helping Out for the Holidays

<p>A holiday toy drive at Gampel Pavilion during a basketball game, with Softball team members, from left, Brittany Duclos, Megan Apper, and Dana Hughes. Photo by Ken Best</p>
A holiday toy drive at Gampel Pavilion during a basketball game, with Softball team members, from left, Brittany Duclos, Megan Apper, and Dana Hughes. Photo by Ken Best

Kim Weber, a junior on the UConn women’s rowing team, clutched a cup of coffee with both hands as the first snow storm of the season whipped around the gates outside Rentschler Field in East Hartford. She was standing under a tent with teammate Katie Visentin, a sophomore, surrounded by several large cardboard boxes collecting winter coats, scarves, gloves, and hats donated by fans attending the final Husky home football game of the year against South Florida.

“We got some UConn jackets, but it’s been mixed,” says Weber. “We actually had one person bring in coats from a restaurant, where people left things there over the past year.”

Weber and Visentin, along with other rowing teammates and members of the softball and lacrosse teams, were collecting the coats for distribution to various charitable organizations in the Hartford area and eastern Connecticut. The rowing team and members of the field hockey and softball teams also collected toys for holiday distribution to charities during men’s and women’s basketball games at Gampel Pavilion.

“I think it’s wonderful what they’re doing,” said Danny Karwoski of Stamford, who with his son, David, dropped off two bags of toys before the women’s game against Vermont. “I just had a great Thanksgiving. I want the kids to have a great Christmas.”

The coat and toy collections are part of a variety of community activities in which UConn student-athletes participate throughout the year, including food and book collections. They also visit patients in area hospitals and read to elementary school children as part of the Husky Reach program. Last year, the SAAC hosted participants of the Nutmeg Big Brothers and Big Sisters program during a day-long visit to UConn that included highlights such as Homer Babbidge Library, Gampel Pavilion, and the Dairy Bar.

“It’s important to represent UConn and show we support the community,” says Weber, who serves as UConn’s representative to the Big East Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), an NCAA program that promotes communication between athletics administration and student-athletes, helps build unity among student-athletes, and organizes community service efforts.

Earlier this year Weber was selected to represent the Big East at a SAAC conference that brought together student-athletes from throughout the United States in Providence, R.I., where the Big East Conference offices are located.

“It was an awesome experience,” Weber says. “I felt honored I was chosen to go. I’ve been pretty involved [with SAAC] in the past couple of years. We talked about sportsmanship, NCAA rules, and other issues. We did outreach that day to a Head Start center in Providence. It’s important to me as a student-athlete.”

Each of UConn’s 24 men’s and women’s varsity athletic teams is represented on the campus SAAC. In addition to discussing student-athlete concerns that may need to be brought to the attention of the Division of Athletics, SAAC provides an opportunity for student-athletes to talk about common experiences and exchange information about their activities.

“We have monthly meetings where we get to share what we’re doing in our own sports,” says Weber. “We plan dates so we can support each other – we call it athletes supporting athletes – by attending games and events of other teams.”

For many student-athletes, volunteering for community service is a familiar activity. Jordan Christopher, a freshman lacrosse player who was collecting coats at Rentschler field with her teammate Kacie Lewis, also a freshman, did volunteer work in high school.

“We always did volunteer work, but here it has a much bigger impact,” Christopher says.

Adds freshman softball player Megan Apper, “People come to the games and cheer us on. We we want to give back to the community.”

UConn’s commitment to community service has been recognized for two consecutive years by the National Consortium for Academics and Sport for its community service initiatives. The consortium collects data on community outreach by athletic departments around the country, and the top 15-20 percent are honored.

“We consider SAAC an important part of the student-athlete experience at UConn,” says Jeffrey Hathaway, UConn director of athletics. “It helps our students understand that the support they receive from Husky fans is not based solely on what they do as competitors wearing a UConn uniform. They are also part of the Connecticut community we live in, which has a long and proud history of helping others.”