UVA Student-Athletes’ Effort Extends Well Beyond Gyms and Stadiums

March 26, 2019 By Caroline Newman, news@virginia.edu Caroline Newman, news@virginia.edu

The only chair available for Jack Salt at Clark Elementary School was decidedly not designed for his 6-foot-10, 250-pound frame.

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However, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team’s starting center didn’t seem to mind one bit.

Salt – who will take the court Thursday night with his teammates in a bid to reach the “Elite Eight” of the NCAA Tournament – is pursuing a master’s degree in educational psychology at UVA’s Curry School of Education and Human Development and has said he is interested in a teaching career.

When he is not playing tenacious defense, setting bone-shattering screens or thrilling fans with thunderous dunks, he can sometimes be found at local elementary schools. There, he reads to children, tells them a bit about his home country, New Zealand, answers their questions or simply spends time with them – a thrill for many young fans.

And he’s far from the only Cavalier athlete making an impact in the local community.

DeAndre Hunter stands in front of a class of small children
Basketball star DeAndre Hunter – who is making a big impact after injury kept him out of last year’s NCAA Tournament – didn’t let the height difference stop him from entertaining these elementary schoolers. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

UVA’s 750 student-athletes routinely take time out from classes, practices and games to volunteer in the community – in schools, in hospitals, at Habitat for Humanity builds, assisted-living facilities, Special Olympics events and more.

They participate in organized events, but go on their own time as well, building personal relationships with students, teachers, patients and many others.

ack Salt points to New Zealand on a map for elementary children to see
UVA men’s basketball center Jack Salt tells Clark Elementary School kindergarteners about his home in New Zealand. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

“I believe community engagement should be a part of the overall student-athlete experience,” UVA Director of Athletics Carla Williams said. “It teaches student-athletes to be active in their community, and it has a lasting and positive impact on our society. Not only are they providing service to our community, they are also acquiring knowledge outside of the classroom and their respective sport programs.”

Children stand together with UVA soccer team for a group photo
Members of the women’s soccer team with children at the Boys and Girls Club Cherry Avenue. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

Some of UVA’s student-athletes volunteer through Athletes Committed to Education, or ACE, a Madison House program that connects more than 50 student-athletes to local elementary schools.

They visit the schools on a weekly basis, allowing them to form strong bonds with students week after week, year after year.

Shakyna Payne reads to a class
Third-year women’s basketball player Shakyna Payne reads to a class at Clark Elementary School. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

The football team runs a popular “Thursday’s Heroes” program, bringing UVA fans who are facing difficult circumstances to practice to meet the team and coaches and get a fun respite from daily challenges.

One of this year’s heroes was Luke Edwards, the son of UVA football analyst Matt Edwards. The toddler is fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Luke Edwards sits on a little bull dozer while being surrounded by the UVA football team
“Thursday Hero” Luke Edwards was thrilled to join the football team for practice in the fall. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

Football players also worked alongside volleyball and soccer team members to assist the local United Way chapter in unpacking 10,000 books for a summer reading program.

Others, like basketball alumna Aliyah Huland El, help with local Habitat for Humanity projects. Huland El graduated in May and signed with a professional team in Italy. Eventually, she hopes to go to medical school and become a pediatrician.

Aliyah Huland El working at Habitat for Humanity
2018 graduate and former basketball player Aliyah Huland El helped out at a Habitat for Humanity site last year. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

Still more student-athletes volunteer through Team IMPACT, a national non-profit connecting kids fighting chronic illnesses with collegiate sports teams. UVA’s softball, baseball and men’s lacrosse teams have each sponsored children, inviting them to practices, games and team activities, and honoring them in pregame ceremonies.

Others help at assisted-living facilities like Morningside of Charlottesville, or work with the Virginia Discovery Museum, where they set up science fairs or help children work through STEM-related challenges.

Austin Kastra talking to a little kid on a field
Men’s basketball player Austin Kastra – whom you might recognize from his televised celebrations on the UVA bench – talks with some young teammates during “UVA Day.” (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

Virginia Athletics also held a “UVA Day” in August in partnership with UVA Orthopedics, Nike and the Boys and Girls Club of Central Virginia.

It was a family-friendly affair, with scores of children from the Boys and Girls Club joining UVA student-athletes for a field day, with games ranging from tug-of-war to pick-up soccer.

Carla Williams helping children with a basketball shooting game
UVA women's basketball coach Tina Thompson at “UVA Day.”

Many joined in on the fun, as the kids attempted a series of carnival games and field-day challenges like tug-of-war.

Both coaches and student-athletes were on hand, and the event attracted a large crowd of students, children and families.

Simeon Okoro lays on the ground as a small kid makes a soccer goal
Third-year soccer player Simeon Okoro might need to brush up on his goalie skills. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

The day also gave student-athletes a chance to share their favorite sports with young fans who are just getting into them.

Soccer player Simeon Okoro really put himself on the line, diving – apparently in vain – for an impressive goal.

Betsy Brandon gives a small child a piggy back ride
Third-year soccer player Betsy Brandon was clearly excited for “UVA Day.” (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

Regardless of where and how they volunteer, Williams said the experiences are an important part of student-athletes’ education at UVA. “I am proud of our student-athletes’ engagement with the community,” she said. “Their willingness and passion to contribute truly makes a difference and leads to some unique and rewarding experiences they can carry with them through life.”