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Nov. 6, 2013

By Jon Cooper
Sting Daily

The opportunity to play Division I sports isn’t cheap — especially at an institution like Georgia Tech — yet very easily can be taken for granted by participants.

Such is not the case at Georgia Tech.

Beginning Monday night and every night this week, participants from all 15 varsity sports, as well as members of various spirit squads, have come to the Athletic Association offices to man phone banks and personally call donors to let them know they are appreciated. The initiative is unofficially called the Inaugural Georgia Tech Thank-a-thon.

“It started just with the idea of wanting to be appreciative and say ‘Thank You,’ to the donors of the Alexander Tharp Fund and it kind of took off,” said Kevin Kitchens, Director of Annual Giving for Athletics. “Other schools have done this before but we really wanted to be unique to Georgia Tech, and since it was the first time we were doing it we wanted to blow it out of the water, so we evolved it and turned it into ‘Donor Appreciation Week.’ The cornerstone is our student-athletes. Our Student-Athlete Advisory Board has been huge in getting student-athlete involvement.”

No one has come up bigger than redshirt senior basketball player and S.A.A.B. President Shayla Bivins. Bivins was doing an internship for the Athletic Association during the summer and was in search of a project when the task of finding a way to thank AT donors was put in her court.

Inspired by having just returned from Europe, where the women’s team had played several games, Bivins took the ball the length of the court and provided a slam dunk of an idea. While it wasn’t easy, Bivins got it done right, in a manner befitting Georgia Tech.

“I have never organized anything THIS colossal,” she said Tuesday night while helping oversee Day Two of the event. “This has been done at schools across the country. Michigan State had a Thank-a-thon, Boston College had one, Purdue. So I did a lot of research. I picked up the phone and called people from other universities just to kind of amalgamate ideas. But basically it was research, and trial and error.”

Getting people to man the project, which involved calling every donor — Kitchens estimated 2,200 — was then spread by S.A.A.B. and was met with overwhelming approval.

“Our student-athletes, our coaches have been supportive, our administrators have been supportive,” said Kitchens. “When I told people in the building that’s what we want to do, the response that I got was ‘That’s really cool. Let me know how I can help out.’ Everybody’s working together on it. Every sport is participating. Some sports’ entire team is going to be here this week.”

The primary goal is to talk with donors. If no one answers, student-athletes are encouraged to leave a voicemail. If voicemail is not an option, the next option is hand-written thank you notes.

The student-athletes preferred talking with their benefactors and relished the opportunity to show their gratitude.

“It was a voluntary thing, kind of a chance to thank some of the donors and express our appreciation because, from what I understand, none of that is really possible without the donations from these people,” said redshirt senior linebacker Daniel Drummond. “I just talked to a guy, he said he didn’t have any kids but he really enjoyed that he got a chance to help someone like me. It’s awesome. I’m pretty sure it would be pretty neat to see where your money is going to and to know that it personally helped someone. I’d love to hear from someone who got a great opportunity to play football and graduate.”

Every athlete receives a list of 10 names and phone numbers, broken down as best as possible by sport, so student-athletes will likely be calling benefactors to and fans of their sport. There is a prepared script, which some used as a guide, but most pretty much ignored, preferring to freelance.

“I kind of stayed with the script but I did invite them out to the spring games,” said junior softball pitcher Kylie Kleinschmidt. “I told them I was on the softball team, we play in the spring and encouraged them to come out to games. They’re all friendly. They would talk to you and they would say, ‘Thank you’.”

As expected, athletes frequently ran into fans that knew them or of them and those conversations frequently went a little longer than expected. Redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Errin Joe, S.A.A.B.’s ACC Blog Liaison, chatted for several minutes with a donor, as appeared in no hurry to hang up.

“That was a great call,” said Joe, of the fan, who was calling from Hawaii, where he watched the games via Internet, and who at one point referred to Joe as “No. 75.” “That was a guy who graduated in ’66. Usually you’re supposed to keep these calls short but there was something about him, he just kept telling me about Tech and how much respect and support he has for the football team. He said the true way to really show his support for being a football fan was to endow a scholarship. So I said, ‘You not only represent a true fan but what Georgia Tech really means.’ It was awesome.”

Regardless of whether the donor was contacted in person or by voicemail, each will receive an even more personal memento, a hand-written thank you note. Some 296 alone went out Tuesday morning.

The writing of those notes led to a moment of levity on Monday night.

“We had a couple of men’s basketball student-athletes and a women’s basketball student-athlete last night and I walked in and they were kind of shaking [their hands] out a little bit,” Kitchens recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh, I hope you don’t have a shoot around later.’ One goes, ‘We do.’ I was like, ‘OH MY GOSH! PLEASE STOP. I don’t want your coaches to get mad at me.’ He was like, ‘I’m kidding.’”

There have been no reports of hand-cramping.

With all the enthusiasm the student-athletes have shown and with so many competitors going about the calls, Kitchens has suggested the possibility of doing an All-Thank-a-thon team — early favorites were football’s Robbie Godhigh, men’s basketball’s Kam Holsey and baseball’s Brandon Gold.

“We started like an All-Star list yesterday,” said Kitchens, with a laugh. “We definitely have some names that are at the top of the list. We had a couple of cheerleaders yesterday that just rocked out.

“That’s the thing that’s been most impressive,” he added. “Everything has been peer-to-peer, teammate-to-teammate. The coaches were supportive but there was no mandating, ‘You have to be there.’ It was ‘It’s the right thing to do. We’re trying to say ‘Thanks’ as much as we can.’ That’s kind of what happened.”

What will happen down the road, with the birth of a Georgia Tech Athletics tradition, is exciting to Bivins.

“I was joking with [Associate Vice President for Development (Athletics)/Associate Director of Athletics] Jim Hall last night that it’s so amazing that this has been so well received,” she said. “I could see coming back to Tech in 20 years and the Thank-a-thon is still going on. That is awesome, the fact that the culture of appreciation is that prevalent here. That people want to say ‘Thank you’ for what we’ve been given.”

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