May 27, 2015
The following story appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of The Buzz Magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.
By Jon Cooper –
Frequently in sports what’s not seen behind the scenes can make a huge difference.
Georgia Tech’s Student-Athlete Advisory Board is an example.
A part of Dr. Homer Rice’s Total Person Program, SAAB’s 31 members work, often behind the scenes, on school and community projects that improve the quality of life of their teammates, the entire student body and the community surrounding Georgia Tech, in the process, changing their lives and honing their leadership skills.
These are special kids asked to fulfill huge responsibilities, whose work can be seen everywhere on campus and in the community in events as diverse as the Michael Isenhour Toy Drive, the Girls on the Run 5K, and the Donor Thank-a-Thon as part of Donor Appreciation Week, among others.
“I make some pretty clear expectations about that program and my expectations for them as good examples,” said Leah Thomas, Director of Total Person Support Services since 2008. “My expectations for them is that they will serve, essentially as my staff and as promoters of this program and as if it’s partially theirs. I think these types of kids really thrive on that, given some power and some inside scoop and some `in the know’ on things. They have knowledge that not every person gets. They’ve taken in to that role and done a really good job with it.”
“These are kids I trust,” Thomas added. “We have heart-to-heart conversations about these events. They understand. They have a full appreciation for what its intentions are and what the attitude should be, and therefore I think they feel some ownership and offer good input.”
That input is offered in the monthly meetings, that are focused, short and to the point.
“We meet generally once a month and I try to keep it to an hour because I know everybody is really busy.” said SAAB President Morgan Jackson, a senior track and cross country runner. “Those are the SAAB meetings but the events that SAAB has, we probably have one thing a week that we actually go to.”
By feeling ownership, SAAB reps — appointed by their teams’ coaches in concert with Thomas — can spread their wings by working through experiences that might be new to them. It can be as much of a life-altering experience for them as for those they serve.
“I think the most growth I’ve seen in me has been off the court, just going through Georgia Tech and all the experiences I’ve been able to go through. SAAB has been such a big part of that,” said junior Megan Kurey, captain of the women’s tennis team. “Through SAAB, being able to get involved with other things, a lot of community service and big events going on, I was able to speak at the Georgia Tech Endowment Dinner from Leah’s recommendation. Just being part of organizing the banquet at the end of the year, it’s such a special night. So just being able to be someone that has to organize and being a part of all the activities here is something really special, and I’ll remember that for a while.”
“SAAB initially takes you out of your comfort zone, to where, if you’re not used to being a leader, it makes you be a leader,” said basketball player Aaron Peek, who will receive his diploma in May. “You know more about what the [Athletic Association] and what the student population is doing so you can bring that back to your team, which is valuable. If there is a Total Person program, if there is some kind of community service they can do, you can go back to the team and tell them, `This is what we’re doing.’ Within your individual team it allows you to kind of rise up. I’m usually kind of quiet, but with SAAB and with a voice, I became more comfortable around my teammates, more comfortable talking to the coaches. I attribute that amount of comfort to just being in SAAB.”
That self-improvement, while a nice benefit to its members, isn’t the primary motivation of the group.
“With SAAB, we focus a lot on others. We never really talk about how we can make ourselves better or improve our own image,” said junior tennis player Nathan Rakitt. “It’s about helping others through the community, volunteering, setting up all these events that other athletes or even other students on campus attend. We do all the behind-the-scenes work and often times, nobody really knows that we’re doing anything.
“One of our biggest events this year is the Yellow Jacket Celebration,” Rakitt continued. “For the other 370-ish student-athletes that are going to show up and say, `Oh, this is nice, this is great,’ they probably don’t realize all the work we’ve put in for the last few months to prepare for this program, as well as Leah Thomas. She is just the epitome of what service leadership is, always putting others before herself, always helping out in any way she can, often times never really asking for anything in return.”
SAAB’s work can be seen through initiatives like the annual Michael Isenhour Toy Drive, which has gathered toys at the Jackets’ final home football game and various home basketball games for children of homeless or destitute families since the Christmas of 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, the annual Career Fair and Donor Appreciation Week, as well offering a helping hand with events like Girls on the Run, the Special Olympics, and many other events. Often, other campus organizations will call on SAAB to assist in their events, seeking the credibility provided by the name-recognition of the student-athletes.
“It’s credibility so much as everybody wants to use a well-known face as a spokesperson,” Thomas said. “A lot of campus departments or organizations reach out to us. We’re able to put together and provide numbers of people to attend stuff or to be a part of stuff, then, spokespeople reach out to us for a reason. They know that students look at a student-athlete in such a way, almost like you look at a famous person. If they speak to it then there must be something to it.”
Getting the student-athletes to events is the job of SAAB’s representatives.
“We all know that peer-to-peer communication and peer-to-peer pressure works better than anyone mandating that they do things,” said Thomas.
Whether it’s peer pressure or something else, SAAB members sometimes have found an unselfishness they didn’t know previously existed.
“When I came in as a freshman, I was just expecting to play softball and go through school,” said senior Caitlyn Coffey, SAAB vice president. “Being on the Board has really taught me a lot about leadership and putting myself in roles I might not be comfortable with, but that’s grown me as a person. The biggest thing it’s shown me is how important community is and serving the community. We have a competition through the Athletic Association, just seeing how we can make the biggest difference in the community.
“It is cool to know that my teammates and my coaches believe that I can be in that position,” she added. “Just being in a role like that, obviously, it’s great because I get to work right next to Morgan Jackson and Leah, who kind of overseas all of SAAB, and [associate director of athletics and senior woman administrator] Theresa Wenzel. I get to talk to all of them, and see what ways we can make the student-athlete life a better experience for everyone.”
For the reps, there’s nothing like seeing all the hard work come to fruition.
“I feel like the biggest thing I’ve gotten is when you do those type of events you get to see how much you impact the community, how much they really like to see you, when you shake their hand how much it means to somebody. That makes you feel good inside,” said redshirt junior football player Isiah Willis, who has been on the board for two years. “It’s inspiring to people to see us out there, but it’s just as heartwarming and makes us feel just as good to be out there to show support and to cheer them on. They come out and support us so I feel like we’re obligated to go out and support them as much as we can whenever we get the opportunity.”
A SAAB initiative that has really taken off has been Donor Appreciation Week, in which the entire student-athlete body says “Thank You” to donors to the Athletic Association. In only two years, it has morphed into a huge event, one important enough that football players, in the week of preparing for the ACC Championship game, still found time to attend.
“Donor Appreciation Week is real exciting because all the athletes are working together and we get to thank all the people that make it possible for what we do,” said Jackson. “That’s really an event that we’re passionate about.”
Being behind the scenes for Donor Appreciation Week and so many others has given Jackson a greater sense of perspective for what it takes to put on these events and for who does so.
“I definitely appreciate the work and what has been given to me more now that I can see behind the scenes everything that goes into an event and how much the staff cares,” she said. “Through SAAB, I’ve gotten to know the GTAA staff much better and just see how they care and all the work they put into it just makes me more appreciative. It also shows me how much potential and how much I have that I can give back to the community.”
Enthusiasm for the group is growing. For those graduating, the infusion of young blood and fresh ideas is nice to see.
“It’s exciting to see a new generation of those that want to do even more than I did come along,” said Peek. “It’s going to be exciting to see the younger athletes bring more ideas to Leah and even more so to their individual coaches.”
So great is the demand to get on the board that Thomas has considered introducing a JV SAAB, with a merit system for advancement to the main group.
“SAAB numbers over the past six or seven years have grown and, until the past two years I have never had so many individuals come up to me and ask to be on SAAB,” she said. “This past fall, when we did our Freshman Leadership Academy, I had pretty much every single freshman softball player come up to me and say, `I would like to be on SAAB.’ I think that the image of what SAAB is is really changing and evolving thanks to the type of kid that is on there. It’s just grown to be something that people really want to be a part of.”
The current reps, who will have input in their replacements, also have seen it first-hand.
“Every year there are new members on SAAB and it’s really cool to see how excited they are for the opportunity,” said Kurey. “There are a lot of teammates that would be able to fill the role and talk to me all the time about it. All the student-athletes know how much SAAB does, so it’s something really cool and exciting. Really, it’s an honor to be on SAAB.”
“It’s really cool to see how the freshmen and sophomores this year are so excited about SAAB,” Jackson said. “Just yesterday one of the track student-athletes that I’m friends with said, `I’m going to be just like you, Morgan. Next year, when I get my school under my belt. I want to join SAAB.’ That really means a lot that these people look up to the SAAB members, and we can share with them our experiences. It definitely is exciting to pass the torch on because [former President] Shayla [Bivins] was such a good leader to me, a role model to me. I’d like to do the same for the next generation.”