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Lending a Hand

Jan. 20, 2011

ATLANTA – By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

Swimming is a team sport in as much as you’re part of a team, yet often is a solitary pursuit.

The practices, and sometimes the races themselves, force swimmers to compete against themselves and push for their personal best.

During Christmas Break, members of the Georgia Tech’s Men’s Swimming Team showed they could set a personal best without setting foot in the pool, and make a difference in the world away from swimming.

“Every year we normally do a team gift exchange,” said senior butterfly and freestyler Travis Wagner, the school-record holder in the 100-meter fly (47.22 at the 2009 ACCs). “But last year, when I was captain, [fellow tri-captains] Jeff Phillips and Johnny Hagaman and I just decided that rather than doing something with ourselves as a team, we wanted to give back to the community.”

The outlet Wagner suggested was Project Open Hand.

Project Open Hand is an initiative started humbly in 1988, as a small group of 14 people that prepared meals to feed a group of friends unable to do so themselves. In the 23 years since, the project has blossomed into a service that prepares, packs and delivers in the neighborhood of 4,500 meals a day to the sick, the disabled and the elderly in Atlanta.

Wagner knew about the project as his fraternity, Delta Sigma Phi, had a relationship with the organization, volunteering at times during the year. This winter, he recruited sophomore Mike Hart, who also swims free and fly, to take over the responsibilities in getting the word out to the swim team and organizing groups of volunteers to go to Project Open Hand’s headquarters in Atlanta, to help out.

Hart was hooked right away.

“It’s really rewarding because we have a fun time doing this,” he said. “All the people that we work with are volunteers. The staff members love what they do. It’s really fun to just go and know that you’re helping the community and having a great time doing it. Take a break from all the laps that we do, especially during Christmas, where we’re swimming and swimming and swimming. We have time to bond as a team as well as do some great stuff for the community.”

While the packing of meals into containers then into bags for delivery sounds tedious, Hart said that the time flies by and that getting people to help out has never been an issue.

“It’s not like we say, ‘Alright guys, we have team community service that we have to do at this time and because you’re a part of the team you’ve got to do it,'” he said. “I send out an e-mail. All these people volunteer. It’s like, ‘Okay, let’s go do it.’ I feel like everyone got positive things out of it.”

Responsibility often goes beyond packing and delivering food.

“When we go we also help them move stuff around because we’re able-bodied people that can help them move big things, like crates and food around in the refrigerator,” said Hart. “There’s definitely a need for things like that that other teams or other people around campus could volunteer for.”

Being involved in Project Open Hand has provided a greater appreciation for the project’s organizers and been a source of inspiration for the future.

“I learned that the people that we work with are completely selfless,” said Hart. “They come in and do the same thing and they plan all these meals to be creative, yet healthy. I learned that even when it seems like we’re sacrificing some part of our day to go and help, it doesn’t feel like that at all. It feels like we’re going and having fun doing it because when we’re getting our stuff ready, it doesn’t feel like the two and a half hours that we sit there. It felt like we’re just having a good time. So if you can get it so that community service, helping other people, is just second nature to you, it’s a very good lesson to learn out past swimming and in life.”

“These people don’t see the same meal for a month and that really surprised me,” said Wagner. “That people take an extra step in giving back to put so much time and effort into it. I was thinking we just package things up one-by-one and everything is going to be the same and while it is a lot of the same, there’s vegetarians, there’s vegans, there’s low-sodium, there’s everything they have to take into account. It’s great to see that these people are going above and beyond to really help the people that need it.

“This is something that we can do periodically throughout the year to give back to the community that is here at hand, which is part of Tech’s new strategic plan to create community and global leaders,” he added. “We can go out there and we have a good association and, as Mike said, able-bodied people that can go and help the close community in Atlanta.”

For more information on Project Open Hand, log onto www.projectopenhand.org.

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