Back in January of 1995, UNC Asheville had a new baseball coach, Bill Hillier. He’d found the players’ locker room in sad shape and sought help from local business owners, Chris Young and his wife, Nina, of Office Environments.
Hillier, who’s now a school teacher in Roxboro, N.C., remembers making his case to Young: “It’s so neglected, and it looks so bad, that it’s going to impact our recruiting. We can’t bring parents and recruits in there—we just don’t look the part.”
The company came through with donated lockers and office equipment for the baseball staff—“The coach won me over,” Young says—and the teams’ facility got a much-needed makeover.
Just a few weeks later, though, Young found his own facility facing even bigger problems: The company’s 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Biltmore Village was one among many impacted by major flooding. It was stocked with hundreds of pieces of new furniture on their way to the company’s clients.
“We knew we were in big trouble,” Young says. “We couldn’t even get to the building at first. Everything was under water as far as you could see. When we finally opened the doors, it was like a big bathtub, with the water three-feet deep. We had furniture floating around the place.”
Dan Coker and Piedmont Paper, a neighboring business, offered a tractor-trailer to move the merchandise, and Young found a dry warehouse to relocate to. But it would take some serious heavy lifting to salvage the furniture before it was ruined.
“It was pretty traumatic—you could see your business just going away,” Young says. “We were looking at ruin, to tell you truth.”
But the next morning, when Young arrived at his building, “There were two coaches and 30 baseball players standing there, waiting to go to work,” he remembers. The Bulldogs’ full roster would spend a week—one that was to have been their first week of practice for the upcoming season—moving the furniture and saving the business.
“You talk about a godsend: We never could have gotten that stuff out of there on our own,” Young recalls. Hillier says that it not only felt like the right thing to do, returning Young’s favor, but the furniture-rescue mission also gave him a quick sense of just who on the squad was a team player.
The team’s captain at the time, Eric Filipek ’97, agrees. “We found out more about our team in those five days that we helped than we could have found out on the field,” he remembers. “We found out a lot about our coaches at the time as well, because they got in there first and showed us what needed to be done and worked as much as we did.”
Filipek took even more away from the experience. After graduating, he coached collegiate baseball for 10 years but then decided he’d pursue something more in line with his management major. “I called the Youngs and, without hesitation, they gave me an interview,” he says. Then they gave him a job, and today he runs a division of the Youngs’ latest company, Clean Environments.
The team roster might have changed in the past 20 years, but the spirit of giving back has not. That kind of perspective, born from community service, is exactly what the university seeks for its student-athletes, Director of Athletics Janet Cone says. On the one hand, the students should succeed in the classroom, and on another, in their respective fields of athletic competition. But there’s a third component.
“That’s community service,” Cone says. “What kind of citizens are we? We stress to our staff and our athletes that we’ve been very fortunate and blessed, and therefore it’s part of our responsibility to be servant leaders and give back to the community.”
“That’s community service. “What kind of citizens are we? We stress to our staff and our athletes that we’ve been very fortunate and blessed, and therefore it’s part of our responsibility to be servant leaders and give back to the community.” –Janet Cone, Director of Athletics
Consequently, every student-athlete is required to do at least six hours per year of community service. But many do more, notes Director of Student-Athlete Services Rebecca Nelms Keil.
In the 2013–14 academic year, she reports, student-athletes and the athletic staff logged 2,500 hours of community service, supporting a wide range of local groups and institutions that tackle everything from early childhood education to several kinds of cancer, from food banks to the Special Olympics.
Hunter Bryant, a senior management major from nearby Leicester, who plays first base for the Bulldogs, is normally what you’d consider a clean-cut type. But last year, he grew a full-on mullet.
Bryant wasn’t making a fashion statement: He was putting on hair to cut it off later. He’d joined the other members of the baseball team in a pledge campaign for fighting children’s cancer. The pitch to potential sponsors: “If I raise this amount of money, I’m going to get my head shaved at the end of the game.”
And a big game at that. In what has become an annual tradition, the team schedules one of its bigger games at McCormick Field in downtown Asheville, drawing a large crowd on a night that’s dedicated to raising funds for both Vs. Cancer, a national program started by a former collegiate ballplayer, and Mission Health’s Children’s Cancer Center.
Last May, the pledge drive drew $18,000 for the cause, according to recently retired baseball coach Tom Smith, and $15,000 the year before that, including support from Neal Hanks and Beverly-Hanks. Perhaps surprisingly, it didn’t take any prodding to get the team involved in the effort. “Most every one of them had someone who’d been affected by cancer in their own family, so it was not a hard sell,” Smith remembers.
“It’s voluntary, but everyone has done it in the past two years,” Bryant says. “It’s certainly not a task for us—I mean, we have fun with it. We actually have a blast getting our heads shaved in front of all the fans, and then we go bald for a few weeks.
“It’s voluntary, but everyone has done it in the past two years. “It’s certainly not a task for us—I mean, we have fun with it. We actually have a blast getting our heads shaved in front of all the fans, and then we go bald for a few weeks.–Hunter Bryant, UNC Asheville senior
“Even though all of us have a full schedule, and during the season we sometimes hardly even find time to eat, the kids that we’re doing it for are way worse off than us,” Bryant says. “So it puts things into perspective for all of us.”
The Bulldog baseball team is looking to the next generation of leaders too, engaging in a community service program at Asheville Middle School. Last fall, 27 players served as mentors or led “Move More” sessions there—creating activities to get kids out of their seats.
Keri Pavelock ’14, an AmeriCorps VISTA staffer who’s based at the university, coordinates their placements at the school. The benefits of the outreach and involvement are evident for both the grade-schoolers and the college students, she says.
“A lot of the student-athletes are really busy, but they like interacting with the kids, hanging out with them, and feeling like they’re giving something back,” she says. “It teaches them how to lead by example by showing that they went to college, and that their sports and their studies helped them get there.