MISSOULA — Montana’s student-athletes spent more than 2,190 hours donating their time to community service events and projects during the 2013-14 academic year, but you might wonder, how, exactly, does Griz soccer player Savannah Witt end up spending some of her free time at the Food Bank?
It’s actually remarkably streamlined, or at least it has been the last year, and it’s one of the reasons service-minded Grizzlies like Witt rarely go without in their desire to give back in any way possible.
A request is made through GoGriz.com. Lindsey Goodman, one of the department’s academic services advisors, sends out an email detailing the specifics of the service project to nearly 300 student-athletes. And opportunity is paired up with what has become a deep well of interest.
“I love the email system,” says Witt, who will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall. “My freshman year I wanted to be involved, but I really didn’t know where to start. This makes it so easy.”
How much is 2,194.5 hours, to be exact? If you worked 40 hours per week for an entire year, without a vacation day, sick day or holiday break, you’d put in 2,080 hours.
So the Grizzlies provided Missoula and other communities with what was essentially a full-time volunteer. While at the same time going to classes, studying, practicing, traveling and competing.
Given their other commitments, 2,194.5 hours just doesn’t seem like it should be possible, but they make it work, and never is an arm twisted.
Habitat for Humanity, the United Way of Missoula, the Montana Food Bank Network, the Heart Walk, the Buddy Walk, the American Red Cross, Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Missoula, Watson’s Children Shelter, the Poverello Center. They all benefitted, as did others.
And it came without pay. Sort of.
“I’ve always loved being involved in the community,” says Witt, who spent two weeks earlier this month in Puerto Rico, where she worked with kids living in an orphanage. “Growing up I was always taught that helping others is important.
“Even when someone on our team isn’t excited about an opportunity beforehand, they always feel great about the experience afterwards and usually want to do more. When you help someone in need, it really opens your eyes to what others have gone through and reminds you again how blessed you are.”
When Montana Director of Athletics Kent Haslam was hired in September 2012, he stressed three areas in which he wanted his department’s programs to excel: athletics, academics and community service.
The first two have measurables that are pretty straightforward. Big Sky Conference championships, national tournament appearances, team and individual accolades, department GPAs, Academic All-Big Sky Conference selections, graduation rates.
But what about community service? What is the equivalent of a Big Sky championship or a 4.0 GPA?
“There is a measurable side to community service in the number of hours contributed, but the real reward is the service you provide and the help that you give,” Haslam says.
“It’s personally gratifying for me to see something that I wanted to make a focus of the department become something people are buying into. I commend the coaches and staff and particularly the student-athletes for making it a priority.”
The women’s track and field team set the standard in 2013-14, with 536 hours of community service, nearly a quarter of the department’s total.
But when adjusted for squad size, no one topped coach Jerry Wagner’s volleyball team, which goes 15 players deep. His Grizzlies totaled 228 hours, or more than 15 hours of service per player during the school year.
Witt wasn’t alone representing the Griz soccer team. Coach Mark Plakorus’s players averaged nearly 13 hours of service, a total of 425 for the team, second highest in the department.
“I think it’s important for our players to understand the impact they can make on people’s lives,” Plakorus says. “Being a Grizzly is special, and the impact a Grizzly can have on somebody is pretty unique. That’s a powerful responsibility.
“It’s something I’ve emphasized since I’ve been here: Let’s get out in the community and give back to the people who give us so much.”
Witt worked once a week during the spring semester at Paxson Elementary School. There was a need for her time, but the benefits went both ways. She valued the chance to be a role model for the students while creating a new stereotype for the adults of what a college athlete is.
For Haslam, always with the mindset of an educator, community service is another teaching tool.
“College athletics, through competition and by being a member of a team, teaches lessons to student-athletes that they can’t learn anywhere else,” he says.
“And I feel just as strongly about community service. It teaches about giving back and the opportunity to do good things in a community of people, and it helps people realize that most of us are really blessed.”
— Montana Sports Information