It's hard to say who's helping whom in the M.A.G.I.C. program
By Andy Steiner, Photos by Sher Stoneman
Photo: Chloe Portela, center, and Kelsey Cline play Ships Across the Ocean with first-grader Avanna Gentle at Bancroft Elementary School in Minneapolis
It’s recess time at Heights Community School in St. Paul. A cluster of first-graders streams out of the building and runs, jaggedly, across the playground. There to meet them are four Gopher student athletes—senior Amy VanHeel (rowing); freshman Hannah Tapp (volleyball); and juniors Julia Courter (tennis) and Logan Connors (javelin).
As the kids run in crazy circles around the climber, the basketball hoop, and the still-icy field, the four U students—volunteers for the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics’ Maroon and Gold Impacting the Community (M.A.G.I.C) program—fan out, tossing balls, shooting hoops, and just talking to kids while bending down to their eye level.
Courter, the tennis player, notices one girl standing back from the others. She walks up to her, smiles and asks, “You wanna play?”
While playing is the central point of today’s visit, the M.A.G.I.C. program offers much more. Participation in the M.A.G.I.C. program is voluntary, but last year 605 out of the U’s 750 student athletes participated, says program coordinator Anissa Lightner, assistant director for student-athlete development. “Last year, our student-athletes donated nearly 15,000 hours of community outreach. We coordinated 278 events. This grows out of the culture that we have created in our department, the passion for giving back.”
M.A.G.I.C. coordinates volunteer events with local school districts, nonprofit organizations, and large employers. It connected VanHeel, Tapp, Courter, and Connors to Heights Community School through Playworks, a national nonprofit organization that uses play and recess to help kids develop life skills.
Working with M.A.G.I.C. is simple. “A school will call and say, ‘We’d love to have some athletes come out and read because it’s I Love to Read month,?’??” Lightner says. “We’ll fill out our compliance forms to make sure we are following all the rules of the NCAA. Then we’ll post the event on our website. Our students can go online, see if the event fits their schedule and sign up. Then we send them a reminder, and drive to the event in the M.A.G.I.C. Bus.”
The fruit of a sponsorship between the University and St. Jude Medical Foundation, the M.A.G.I.C. Bus is a 24-passenger vehicle plastered with pictures of Gopher athletes. Lightner uses it to transport teams of M.A.G.I.C. volunteers to events.
Philip Ebeling (B.S.’95), St. Jude senior vice president of research and development, views the bus as part of St. Jude’s mission. “The St. Jude Medical Foundation is driven to positively impact the community,” he says. “Through our sponsorship of the M.A.G.I.C. Bus, student athletes are able to volunteer their time and potentially change the lives of young people in the community.”
Former Gopher softball player Danielle Skrove (B.S. ’12) found her career through volunteering with M.A.G.I.C. As a freshman, she volunteered for an event at the Minnesota Children’s Museum sponsored by HopeKids, a national nonprofit that organizes activities, events, and support for families who have children with life-threatening medical conditions.
“At that first event, I fell in love with HopeKids mission and what they did for kids and their families,” Strove says. “After that, whenever anything to do with HopeKids was on the M.A.G.I.C. schedule, I joined.” Over time, Skrove got to know the HopeKids’ staff. When a program coordinator position became available just weeks before her graduation, Skrove applied and was offered the job.
Postgraduation, former Gopher running back Duane Bennett (B.A. ’11) continues to volunteer with M.A.G.I.C. He credits the program with helping him understand that earning a college degree is more important than a career in football, a truth that hit home for him in 2008, when he was sidelined for the year during the second game because of a knee injury.
“Before that, I was planning on doing just three years in college and then signing with a pro team,” he says. “I was on the fast track. When I got hurt it realigned the stars for me. I got more involved in the M.A.G.I.C. program, and it helped me focus on what needed to be done.”
Bennett signed with the Green Bay Packers, but since then another injury has put his NFL career on hold. Volunteering in schools through M.A.G.I.C. helped him realize that he enjoyed spending time with kids; these days he’s working for an organization that helps young people with autism gain key life skills.
Back at Heights Community School, recess is over and the kids have returned to their classrooms. The Gopher athletes are getting ready to head back to campus. It’s been a successful event, they say, focused on teaching kids the benefits of moving their bodies and being healthy.
“I like to think that these kids and I have a lot in common,” says javelin thrower Connors. “They like to play and so do I. We’re all out here having fun—but at the same time I think we’re learning something from each other, too.”