Looking at the rows of expensive SUVs, trucks and sports cars in a typical UCSB parking lot, one would not be surprised to learn that the family of an average UCSB student makes well over $100,000 a year. Thus, one might be very surprised to find a student community that believes strongly in giving to those who are not so privileged.
A number of students perform many hours of community service each quarter. Over the last few years, the UCSB athletic department has been at the forefront of this community service drive, reaching out to schools, youth groups, retirement homes, youth sports teams and hospitals across Southern California.
One of the leaders in athlete community service over the past decade has been the women’s basketball team. While most UCSB students know that the team is a perennial March Madness participant, few know that the team also spends many hours each quarter volunteering at local elementary and junior high schools, teaching young boys and girls much more than just basketball.
“There are obvious role-modeling benefits for girls, getting to meet our women,” women’s basketball Head Coach Mark French said. “But there are hidden benefits: the more that boys see women in strong, aggressive, equally powerful roles, the less likely they are to make fun of a girl who wants to be an athlete, or sets strong goals for herself.”
French believes that the volunteer work he requires his players to do is a learning experience for them as well.
“One of the mantras of our program is ‘habits of excellence,'” French said. “We want our students to develop habits that will stay with them long after their basketball days are done.”
Junior men’s soccer captain Nate Boyden shares the same sentiment. The team works extensively with the American Youth Soccer Organization, sending players out to many local clubs to run practices with the young athletes.
“Since I’ve arrived at UCSB, I’ve worked with hundreds of young kids, seen them grow and develop, and even seen some soccer skills improve,” Boyden said. “The parents always come up and thank me, but I should be the one thanking them, because I think I get more out of it than the kids do.”
Last fall, the team held a soccer clinic at Sands Beach for children struggling with cancer, and Boyden said that seeing the children left deep impressions on many of his teammates.
“When you get a chance to work with kids who are really struggling, facing great adversity, and you see how they handle it, you see that your life is not that tough after all,” Boyden said.
The UCSB swim team has worked with the Devereux center, an assisted living facility for children and adults with developmental disabilities, for the last three years. Each April, the team hosts the “Splash Olympics,” an event in which children at Devereux get a chance to swim with the Gaucho athletes.
“We’re considered a pretty entitled community; a lot of people have full scholarships or wealthy parents, and we’re giving back to a community that’s not really entitled, whether physically or mentally,” junior swimmer Pat Ota said. “We’re helping them to overcome their fears and feel good about themselves.”
The boys and girls practice with the Gaucho swimmers for several weeks before participating in a series of races at Campus Pool. The Devereux children are placed on teams with the UCSB athletes, and at the end of the day, the children get a chance to dive off the three-meter diving board.
“The end product is we’re helping these kids have fun; they really enjoy the actual event,” Ota said.
The athletes’ community service endeavors have not gone unnoticed by the community. This year, the County of Santa Barbara Commission for Women presented the UCSB women’s basketball team with its 2005 Service Award. Even without the awards, French says, his team benefits greatly from the program.
“It’s really helped our attendance; our program tends to draw a lot more from the local community,” French said. “There’s nothing that drags mom and dad to a game quicker than their kids.”
However, French believes the benefits don’t stop with interest from the local community.
“People are a little surprised that a top-20 women’s basketball program would take the time to go do this,” French said. “But I think you have to be really cautious, the more our athletes are awarded full scholarships and are getting all this attention and benefits. I think this keeps our athletes in touch with what’s important in life.”