Josh Masters had no idea what he was getting into. He was about to climb into a van and go to a homeless shelter in the heart of Over-the-Rhine, the poorest and roughest area of Cincinnati.
“I didn’t know anything about the place except it was in a really bad neighborhood,” says the cross country runner, who graduated in May.
He also knew he didn’t have a choice.
“If you don’t go, you sit out,” he says. “And you get in the coach’s doghouse.”
His job: to spend a few hours helping the city’s homeless. As a means of fulfilling the University’s mission of helping others, contributing to the betterment of the community and developing the student-athletes in ways that are not solely athletic, the University’s athletic department requires every student-athlete to participate in at least one service project each semester. Usually the teams pick a project and serve together.
Like many of his teammates, Masters had mixed emotions about serving. Once he got to the center, though, he found out why the athletic department mandates such work: It was an education. For several hours, he mingled with the area’s homeless, listening to their stories, learning about their lives, realizing they are human beings, too. He walked away with a different perspective—a lesson he couldn’t get in a classroom or on a cross country course.
The program formally began five years ago when director for athletics Mike Bobinski and senior associate director for athletics Dawn Rogers came to the University. Rogers asked each team to begin doing at least one community service project each semester.
“One of the things I liked about Xavier was that what is important to me is important to Xavier, and that’s the students growing as a total person,” Rogers says.
“We talk a lot about it with recruits,” says women’s basketball coach Kevin McGuff. “When you go into a recruit’s house, their parents all want to know that their children will be learning more than basketball and academics, that they are going to grow as young people. We had one girl visit campus on a recruiting trip and we took her out on a project with us. We told her, ‘This is what you are going to do. You might as well find out what it’s all about.’ ”
The athletic department also began creating its own service projects that student-athletes can volunteer for—projects beyond their required events. Each Halloween, for instance, the department has a food drive and the student-athletes knock on every door on campus to ask for donations. At Thanksgiving, they raise money and purchase meals for local families. At Easter, they raise money for a local charity. At Christmas, they each individually purchase something to donate to a local charity. The teams also sponsor about a dozen families each Christmas, with the student-athletes making sure each child in the family has at least two presents to open Christmas morning.
The biggest event the department has is the annual fill-a-truck campaign in which fans are asked to help fill a truck with clothes and food for a local charity. The first event was four years ago, and a small U-Haul was used. With very little publicity, the students parked the trailer outside of the Cincinnati Gardens during a men’s basketball game and filled it. They also raised an additional $600 in cash from fans as they left the arena.
Since then, says Rogers, the fans have embraced the annual event and now pull their cars up next to a semi-trailer and unload boxes of clothes and other goods. The fans also donated an additional $2,500 in cash last year.
And the interest among the student-athletes in doing these projects—either as a team or for the athletic department —has grown to the point where Rogers’ role is now minimized. The student-athletes, she says, have taken over the coordination, implementation and carry-through of the events.
“What our athletes do is not different from what other students at Xavier do,” says Rogers, “but it’s a lot considering they don’t have one extra hour a day in their schedules between classes, weight training, practice, travel and games. They’re really in season all year. And the amount of requests we get for students to speak at events is incredible. So to give up their time to help the community says a lot about the kind of student-athletes we have here.”