May 4, 2016
ARLINGTON, Texas - A champion is defined as a person or team that has won a competition or contest, especially in sports. While that's the most familiar meaning, there is another element to the definition that many overlook.
A champion is also someone who fights or speaks publicly in support of a person, belief or cause.
That's why the student-athletes at UT Arlington are champions. They are defined by their work ethic, commitment, dedication and teamwork. As much as those traits apply to their athletic and academic careers, they take it a step further with their selflessness and ambitious drive to give back to their community in and around Arlington.
The UT Arlington Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) was awarded the Sun Belt Conference Community Service Initiative title for the month of March, its fourth of the 2015-16 academic year. The fourth honor also secured the Mavericks as this year's overall Sun Belt Conference Community Service Initiative champions.
UTA SAAC is comprised of student-athletes, and meets monthly to discuss campus, departmental and national issues. The committee also encourages unity, common purpose and camaraderie between teams and among all student-athletes. UTA Athletics student development specialist Tim Kennedy acts as SAAC's advisor.
"It's more about giving back than just going to class every day, playing sports and hanging out with teammates," UT Arlington athletic director Jim Baker said. "It just shows how well rounded these student-athletes are.
"Tim Kennedy has worked hard to make sure that community service and giving back are important parts of being a person and student-athlete here at UTA."
The initiative is a yearlong competition between the SAAC programs of each league member. The program is intended to motivate student-athletes to get involved in their communities through service and volunteering throughout the academic year.
Points are awarded based on service activities, donations, and time committed towards various community service projects. The university with the highest point total is named the monthly champion, and monthly titles accumulate towards an overall champion.
UTA collected over 1,000 articles of clothing, over 20 pairs of shoes, 4,000 cans and made visits to local learning centers to speak with kids on the importance of education in the month of March. UTA's service raised its point total to 12,300, more than 7,500 ahead of second-place Louisiana.
And what makes that volume of outreach stand out is the fact that UTA's athletic department is without football and soccer programs. But what the Mavericks lack in numbers is made up by their determination to be the best in all aspects of Sun Belt competition.
"It always feels great to be the best, but it also feels great to be able to set a bar," said Darien McLemore, SAAC president and a senior on the baseball team. "This being the first year that the Sun Belt has done this enabled us to set a bar for ourselves and for the other schools that are in our conference. Now we have something to strive for and beat next year."
UTA immediately began to make an impact in the community back in September and spent time giving food to underprivileged families at Urban Ministries and Meals on Wheels. The Mavs garnered 1,822 points to take third place in the month's initiative. Motivated by a passion to help others, and to win a competition as athletes naturally are, the Mavericks stretched their outreach further in October.
SAAC thrived in the following month as members dove deeply into promoting breast cancer awareness. Student-athletes made their presence known at a Texas Rangers game in an effort to receive donations for breast cancer research. They also sent out support letters in hopes of receiving donations for the cause.
In addition, SAAC volunteered and hosted a booth throughout UTA volleyball's Dig Pink match against rival Texas State. The efforts throughout October raised the Mavericks' point total to 3,265, good for second place in the initiative competition.
"It shows that UTA is not just about sports," McLemore said. "We are about community and being a family. We're all going to be here to support one another no matter what and we're going to support our community."
SAAC's hard work finally paid off in the months of November and December as back-to-back titles proved that UTA is just as passionate about the families that support its teams as it is about its performance on the playing field. UTA amassed points from the program's 15th annual canned food drive and funds raised from the Dig Pink match.
The initial goal for the drive was to raise 2,000 cans, but with the help of so many student-athletes, academic staff and the community, SAAC exceeded its expectations by gathering more than 3,400 items to donate to Tarrant County Food Bank. UTA volleyball also raised more than $2,300 with proceeds going towards the Sideout Foundation.
In December, several UTA athletics teams participated in the Salvation Army's "Ring the Bell" campaign and rang in $345 during two days of volunteering. SAAC also collected household items for the area's families that were affected by tornadoes in North Texas.
SAAC team community captain Simba Walker-Williams is proud to know he is part of a movement that is shaping the community and seeing the benefits first-hand. Walker-Williams said the volunteering has also helped defy student-athlete stereotypes.
"A lot of times, people have this notion that student-athletes have things given to them, so to give back and show we're focused on helping the community felt good," Walker-Williams said. "We're proud to see that all of the clothes, the shoes and the cans went to a good cause."
Two monthly initiative awards motivated SAAC even more to take first place in the months of February and March, another back-to-back victory for UTA that now guaranteed the overall championship.
Despite February signaling the opening of baseball and softball season, as well as the heart of the men's and women's basketball campaigns, SAAC still thrived in its contributions to the city.
The student-athletes acquired over 450 clothing items that were donated to Mission Arlington, and more than 50 canned food items. The team also crafted motivational cards encouraging students to stay in school and raised over $650 for two charitable organizations.
Kennedy said the strides that SAAC has made to find volunteer opportunities and reach out to students and community members every day is what sets UTA's well-rounded student-athletes apart. And with continued success comes a desire to recruit future UTA student-athletes who strive for excellence in all aspects of life.
"They value the importance of giving back and it's a reflection of who they are," Kennedy said. "Not only do we want to strive for excellence in athletics, but also we want to strive for excellence in other areas. Serving the community is something we want to push with our student-athletes."
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