Our Town. Our Team.

Bulldog athletes expand their sphere of service.

KJ Weaver, foreground, joined by Bulldog basketball teammates Chatori Major (left) and Paige Love.  Laura Lee Petritz ’14 in blue cap, is coordinator of the Shiloh Community Garden program.The Bulldogs’ theme—“Our Town. Our Team.”—is simple enough on the surface. “We wear Asheville across our chests, that’s the town,” said senior Paige Love of the women’s basketball team. “Really bridging the gap between community and athletics, and community and UNC Asheville—that’s what ‘Our Town. Our Team.’ is all about.”

Paige Love is one of many student-athletes for whom “Our Town. Our Team.” is more than a hashtag. When she arrived on campus four years ago, she was already accustomed to volunteering in her hometown of North Wilkesboro. So continuing and leading teammates in the service work that builds a strong campus-community connection, she says, was “normal” for her. Love volunteers at the Shiloh Community Association garden, the YMCA in downtown Asheville, Asheville City Schools and is a mentor and friend to Elijah Roberts, a Special Olympics athlete. But this doesn’t come naturally to many student-athletes.

“A lot of students come in their own little world, so to get them into the larger community is important,” said Greg Garrison ’05 who works as a tutor at the Parsons Math Lab on campus and employs many students as proprietor of The Hop Ice Cream Café. Greg and his wife Ashley Garrison ’05 have made community involvement a core part of The Hop’s business model, hosting benefits for community organizations every week. As a former Bulldog soccer star who remembers doing volunteer work as part of his team, Greg has insight into the athletics/service connection.

“My philosophy is, no matter what your background or how large or small a sphere you have, the idea is to inject it with as much positivity as you can,” said Garrison. “That applies to everyone, not just athletes. The difference is the sphere,” he says. Some world-famous athletes may have giant spheres of influence, but for many student-athletes who spend so much time with their teams, the spheres can be small, even insular.

“Some athletes may not feel comfortable being outside of their sphere,” said Garrison, who feels it is important for the university to “find a way to transition them into finding a way to get their sphere bigger. How do you create that? One of the ways is through service work—it’s putting people in a situation where they can grow.” 

Bulldog Expectations

The UNC Asheville Athletics Department has been intentional about offering opportunities for service and growth—every student-athlete is encouraged to perform a minimum of six hours of service work each season. “We set up a community service project and some go because we ask them to go,” says UNC Asheville Athletics Director Janet R. Cone. “But some student-athletes go back on their own and continue. We see those kind of examples where they just keep giving back.”

Love’s basketball teammate, junior KJ Weaver from the Atlanta area, is a case in point. “Community service was a new experience, for sure,” she said. “It started with us volunteering together as a team and it’s slowly developed over my three years.” Weaver joins Love in working with Elijah Roberts, and in the Shiloh garden, and she is now ready for more. “I’m thinking of trying to find a regular volunteer position with the Red Cross next summer. It’s really sparked my heart to start serving others.”

Weaver was reluctant at first to talk about her service work, and credits Love with “giving me the connections to go and help people like I want to. My favorite aspect is being able to help others or make others happy without getting recognition,” Weaver said. “I’m getting interviewed now [for this article], but usually, I do it without anyone knowing.”

Weaver and Love are thankful for leadership in this area from Women’s Head Basketball Coach Brenda Mock Kirkpatrick. “From the beginning, she made sure that giving back to the community was one of the top priorities,” said Love. “So much has been given to us, especially because we’re on scholarship. She really made it a big deal, to give back and show appreciation for what has been given to us.”

Youth Focus

Asheville City Schools are a prime focus for UNC Asheville student-athletes’ service work, with some students tutoring and more promoting reading as part of the Rocky Readers program in the elementary schools. Student-athletes also host sessions during the Explore the Tour programs that bring middle school students from all over Western North Carolina to UNC Asheville to boost enthusiasm for college among rural youth. Teams and coaches also provide clinics to help young students develop in sports like basketball, tennis and soccer.

Other places where UNC Asheville student-athletes volunteer are the YMCA in downtown Asheville, and the Shiloh garden, increasing access to fresh, healthy food for that low and middle-income, historically African-American South Asheville neighborhood. And last summer, coaches and athletics administrators led UNC Asheville’s staff team helping build a new playground for Oakley Elementary School.

“We really believe in the health and wellness component,” said Cone, who spent the entire day building playground equipment. “Whether we’re out on the playgrounds or doing clinics, even in our tutoring and our Rocky Readers program, part of it is education and part is athletic activity and promoting an active lifestyle. A lot of it is youth-focused. Student-athletes and coaches can make a big difference because many of the young people look to college athletes as role models.”

Athletes’ Roles

Quote by student-athlete mentor Paige Love '16Reflecting upon what service work can mean for student-athletes, Garrison says the experience comes with challenges and isn’t the same for everyone. “The athlete part makes it easy for people to connect to them,” he said. “But as individuals, it would be more important for students to define themselves as something other than a basketball player or soccer player.

“With about 200 student-athletes involved, there are probably 20 or 30 who are exceptional when it comes to community. There are many more who will get something positive out of it. … Those who will be really changed by it are the reason you should do it. And hopefully, they’ll bring other people along with them.”

Goal Oriented

For the Athletics Department, “Our Town. Our Team.” is a simple imperative: “We live in this town,” said Cone. “We go to school in this town. We play in this town. We work in this town. And our town is so much bigger than our campus. So we’ve got to get out and show that we’re giving back. We reap the benefits too because we live here. We want to be part of the bigger team and the bigger team is our community. Our team is the Bulldogs. We want Asheville to see us as part of the big team and we want them to be part of our team.”