Dec. 1, 2017
Student-athletes can basically get in the routine of living for four seasons — preseason, in-season, postseason, and off-season. In those seasons, they’re focused on what they can do for themselves and their team in their chosen arena.
At Georgia Tech, there’s a fifth season — giving back season. It’s one that is highlighted during the holidays but is one that doesn’t take a holiday.
“Giving back season” lasts all year long and is about what student-athletes can give to others. The rewards are measured in smiles and thank you’s and, while unofficial, is an understood part the culture of Georgia Tech.
“Over the years we’ve been able to establish, ‘This is what we do.’ So as a student-athlete, this is what they do,” said Leah Thomas, director of total person support services. “It only takes the kids barely into their freshman year (to understand).
“They just kind of have a heart for that,” Thomas added. “So they come up with their own ideas or initiative that they want to do. I think it speaks volumes to the type of kids we have, just this desire to take care of others and that it’s more than just about ourselves here.”
Such altruism leads to countless community-service initiatives that run the gamut, from Georgia Tech traditions, like the Michael Isenhour Toy Drive, the Angel Tree Project, and the Bimini Toy Drive, and projects that seem destined to become annual traditions, like Jackets From Jackets, and men’s basketball’s preparing Thanksgiving plates for the homeless.
The commitment to the community is as much a part of being a student-athlete at Georgia Tech as training and working on their games.
“There’s a lot of stuff that we like to do as far as community service. It doesn’t just start over the holidays,” said men’s basketball all-ACC forward and Student-Athlete Advisory Board (SAAB) representative Josh Okogie. “Over the summer the team always makes efforts to go to the Children’s Hospital at Scottish Rite just to play with the kids and make their day. Making food for the homeless, it’s little things you just don’t know, that can maybe save someone’s life or inspire them to keep going. That’s something that we take pride in and we love to do.
“When all is said and done the most important thing about going to school is leaving a mark,” Okogie added. “When I leave this school I don’t want basketball to be the only thing associated with my name. Georgia Tech does a great job of investing in its Total Person Program to make each student-athlete not only an athlete and not only a student but a total person.”
A big part of being a total person is seeing the big picture, and, more important, acting on it.
That’s how the Michael Isenhour Toy Drive began. Isenhour was a basketball player at Tech during the 2000 and 2001 seasons, who responded to the 9/11 tragedy by coming up with an idea for a toy drive to benefit the children of those families who lost loved ones in the attack. It’s 16 years later and the Michael Isenhour Toy Drive is still going strong.
Georgia Tech student-athletes collect toys prior to the final home football game of the year and extends into basketball season, where this year the men collected toys prior to the Nov. 28 game with Northwestern, and are donated to nearby Atlanta Children’s Shelter. Depending on the schedule, both the men’s and women’s teams schedule collecting dates. Isenhour established the toy drive during his courageous nine-month battle with leukemia, which took him on June 13, 2002. But his inspiring fight lives on through the drive.
“We carry on the drive in his name to honor him and what he did,” Thomas said. “It’s always nice to think about a student that was so driven to do this, all the while battling his own health issues. We will always carry on this honor in his name.”
The women’s basketball team wasn’t in town in late November, as they were in the Bahamas for the Junkanoo Jam, but they packed their giving spirit with them — not to mention a load of toys that they would give out to the local children as part of their Bimini Toy Drive. On Nov. 22, they held a party with some of the local children, who’d been suffering after being hit hard by hurricanes.
“After we went to Bimini last year and we saw those little kids and we heard their stories, they were just so excited to have the interaction with us,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph. “When we heard about the hurricanes there, we decided that we should a toy drive and take whatever toys we could get over there and hand them out. Probably of all my time at Georgia Tech, that will go down as one of my fondest memories, seeing our kids giving back and being thankful and thoughtful and the generosity that they showed and the kindness. The kids were so excited. One of the little boys said, ‘This is the best day of my life!’ I just thought that was bigger than basketball. We always say that but that day we lived it. We weren’t just talking it. We lived it. It’s something those little kids and our players will never forget.”
Senior guard Antonia Peresson was left speechless by the event.
“There’s not even a description, seeing the kids, they were just so happy,” said the senior guard, one of two SAAB representatives for the team. “They just melted our hearts. They enjoyed it, we had fun, and then during the games, they were over in the stands cheering for us. It’s bigger than basketball. So just to have the opportunity to give back, because we get a lot and a lot of times we don’t realize it. Giving back to people that really need it, it’s really important. It really touched me. It was a great experience.”
Now that it’s home, women’s basketball plans to continue giving back, almost literally in its own back yard. Women’s basketball and softball are among those participating in The Angel Tree Project, where they will, in effect, “adopt” a family in need from Centennial Academy. They’ll shop for them and host a holiday party for them.
“It’s really important and really neat to be able to help some of our local kids, right here, near our campus, to have that special Christmas,” said assistant director of academic services Whitney Burton. “We’ve been doing this for five years now. I think it definitely falls in line with the idea of Atlanta really being our city and really making sure Georgia Tech has that positive and prevalent presence in our community, making sure that we’re trying to make a difference right in our own neighborhood.
It’s so popular that former Georgia Tech employees stay involved in it.
“As a staff, it’s something we look forward to every year,” said Burton. “We actually have a couple of staff members who are no longer here who have reached out, ‘Are you doing the Angel Tree? I want to at least want to give you some money to help out. It’s my favorite thing every year.’ Internally, with our staff, it’s been just a really special way to kind of do something together to help, kind of a local community, having that school right next to us. I think that makes it really special.”
Georgia Tech gives more than just toys.
For Thanksgiving, former Jackets guard and current director of player personnel Mario West put together a different kind of initiative. He catered a Thanksgiving feast, had the players come together and assemble plates then he delivered them to the Peachtree-Pine Homeless Shelter, which will be closing in the coming days.
It’s been the most fulfilling assist of Malachi Rice’s freshman year.
“Over Thanksgiving we just wanted to help the less-fortunate who couldn’t have a Thanksgiving meal,” said Rice, an Indianapolis, Ind., native, who last year volunteered over 150 hours of community service as a senior at Brebeuf Jesuit High School. “It’s very nice to see that we have people on our staff like Mario West and Coach Pastner that are always helping the less-fortunate.”
“All credit to Mario West,” said Okogie. “He’s on top of things. When, say, we have practice on Saturday and we get breakfast, he makes sure that all the food that we don’t eat goes to the homeless. He does a good job of that.”
Sometimes inspiration can simply come from within. Such inspiration struck junior pitcher Bailey Combs, who initiated Jackets From Jackets, an idea that supplies jackets and other clothing to those in need.
Back in the fall of 2016, Combs saw homeless people while passing the business school and finally just had enough. He started collecting clothes and brought up his idea at a campus Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) meeting.
“I go to Bible study and I do everything else but at some point it has to turn into some sort of action. Something has to be done,” he said. “In getting FCA involved, it was kind of like, ‘Alright, we come to Bible study every week in this room. Let’s go out and let’s go do something about it.’ It’s kind of transformed into that.”
Georgia Tech FCA Director Keith Brown embraced the idea and has helped answer Combs’ call to action — he was so gung-ho that he originally considered going out himself and handing out clothes — and Jackets From Jackets has taken off. The clothes were handed out on Wednesday Combs hopes this can be an annual event.
“I think it should be something even after I’m gone, that somebody could make an effort every year to do it,” Combs said. “Hopefully it’ll take off and it will help a lot of people. We have a lot of stuff. So I’m hoping that there are plenty of people that can use it.”
Plenty of people can use the kind of thinking and action that is coming from Georgia Tech student-athletes. That kind of thinking and action shows no sign of letting up. That’s a very good sign.
“I tell the students a lot that they inspire me so much, especially, on a more personal note, as a mom with three young ones,” said Thomas. “I’m still always blown away by our student-athletes. The message that I give them is, ‘Don’t ever take for granted the impact that they can have on children and families.”