Fans are still filing out of the Cintas Center after watching Xavier beat Providence as Landyn rolls his wheelchair out onto the court.
His brother and sister grab basketballs and start tossing them wildly toward the basket that towers several feet above them. Inspired by their efforts, Landyn steps out of the wheelchair and joins the fun. It’s a struggle.
The 6-year-old has spina bifida, a degenerative spinal disorder that makes it difficult for him to walk, much less play basketball.
As he works on his game, Matt Stainbrook, Xavier’s 6-foot-10 starting center, walks out onto the court, still in uniform, and offers him a little help. He lifts Landyn onto his shoulders and turns toward the basket. With the new height advantage, Landyn easily scores.
Landyn was brought to the game by SAAC, Xavier’s Student-Athlete Advisory Council, as part of a fundraising effort to send him to Disney World through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Each year for the past three years SAAC has singled out an individual to help go on a Make-A-Wish trip.
Three years ago it raised about $1,000 to send a boy to Disney World. Last year it raised roughly $2,100 to send a boy to the Bahamas to swim with the dolphins. And this year through raffles, donation tables and general awareness, it raised more than $5,000 for Landyn and his family.
Although each of Xavier’s 18 sports teams always holds at least one community service project each semester, a resuscitation of SAAC three years ago ramped up the amount and level of community service performed by Xavier’s teams. As part of his hiring, Erik Alanson was asked to turn SAAC into something more than an organization on paper. He recruited soccer player Andy Kaplan and golfer Ariel McNair to represent and organize Xavier’s 300-plus student-athletes. Their goal was threefold:
One, to represent Xavier’s student-athletes at the conference and national levels. The NCAA, for instance, asks for input from student-athletes whenever it is considering policy changes.
Two, to take student-athlete concerns to the administration. Some professors, for instance, have a zero-tolerance policy about missing a class, which is not a possibility for student-athletes due to their extensive travel schedules.
“I know saying we represent the interest of student-athletes sounds a bit entitled,” says Kaplan, “but it really is a huge group of people working full-time jobs and going to school.” Xavier’s 300-plus student-athletes represent about 7 percent of the overall undergraduate population.
And, three, to increase the level of community service. The group opens up its monthly meetings—which can’t take place until around 9:00 p.m. because that’s the first time during the day when none of the teams are practicing or committed to another activity—to ideas. Helping Make-A-Wish was one idea. All teams are now involved with mentoring and tutoring at the Academy of World Languages. In November, an idea was brought up for a canned food drive for St. Vincent DePaul. More than 1,000 cans were collected.
“That’s one of the best things about this—you have 300 Type-A competitive people involved trying to out-do each other,” says Kaplan. “When Ariel and I started, we did everything. We struggled to get people from each team to the meetings. Now we don’t have enough room.”
What’s even better, says Alanson, is that not only has SAAC grown, it now has grown to include specifically designed roles and responsibilities, which gives student-athletes job-specific experience they couldn’t get otherwise.
“We didn’t want SAAC to simply be a bullet point on a résumé,” says Alanson. “It’s much more intentional. All of these student-athletes are going to have to compete for a position of employment after they graduate, but being a student-athlete works against them. Traditional students have time for internships; student-athletes don’t. So we asked: What are some of the things SAAC can do that can give them experiences that is applicable to the real world?”
“As much as I’d love to get an internship with Procter and Gamble, that’s just not realistic,” says Erin McGualey, a sophomore soccer player who’s co-president of SAAC this year with Stainbrook. “Time really is the biggest issue with student-athletes.”
“It really does turn it into an internship,” says Adi Taraska, SAAC’s community service manager.
Art majors, for instance, are put in charge of all design work. Public relations majors handle press releases and social media. Communication arts majors are in charge of SAAC’s next project—the remaking of a video that shows new student-athletes what it means to be a Xavier student-athlete and what kind of commitment they have made.
In the end, unlike their games, everybody wins: The student-athletes get valuable experience, the community gets support—and a 6-year-old boy with spina bifida gets to go to Disney World.