Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Giving back the Wisconsin way

April 29, 2014

By Jonah Beleckis

Hands in his sweatshirt pocket, clutching his miniature football filled with signatures, seventh-grader Abe was getting a backstage view of what a Wisconsin football practice looks like.

Before the day was done, someone would make him center stage.

Chris Borland, who is preparing for May’s National Football League Draft, came into the dining facility, saw Abe passively observing, and took it upon himself to make his experience that much more special.

Borland joined Abe for dinner, engaged him with a multitude of questions, showed him the locker room and gave him all the attention instead of the other way around. These acts of kindness are bridging the gap between student-athletes and the Madison community they mean so much to.

Through Madison’s Big Brothers Big Sisters organization, Todd Berge became Abe’s big brother. After their day with the Badger football team, Berge was grateful for the generosity they encountered and said he will not soon forget any of it.

“I was lucky enough to be able to tag along,” Berge said. “[It was] a once in a lifetime experience.”

Community Relations Coordinator Kayla Gross said the Badgers Give Back program, started in 2012, makes these events so special because it increases athletes’ accessibility and brings a human element to the table.

For children especially, hearing the student-athletes they idolize ask them about their day, their interests, their struggles, can be quite the experience. However, some are fortunate enough to have more than one of these experiences.

Last May, Badgers Give Back gave Wisconsin fan and cancer patient Darien Moran, 14, a Badgers-themed bedroom makeover as part of Make-A-Wish Wisconsin, according to But since then, he has formed a relationship with the football team and Borland in particular, whom he visits and talks to on a regular basis.

“[Moran’s] a big Badgers fan and was afflicted by cancer so it was with Make-A-Wish Foundation,” Borland said. “But it kind of blossomed into more than that.”

The program’s benefits go both ways. The student-athletes themselves marvel at the opportunities they get to give back and how they grow from them.

“[Moran] has become a friend, like a younger brother almost,” Borland said. “Nothing compares to my relationship with Darien ... That’s been special.”

The Badgers Give Back program increased the publicity of the student-athletes’ outreach efforts, according to Gross.

Before the stories were getting out there, Borland said the overall student-athlete outreach effort was missing an identity.

“The organization of it kind of gave it a face, which was good for the community, good for Wisconsin, but also good for our people within the program,” he said. “A lot of players from all different sports got involved because they, like any other fan, saw the face of it, saw Badgers Give Back and realized the opportunity.”

A favorite opportunity among the student-athletes are trips to the American Family Children’s Hospital, according to Gross. So much so, she has to turn requests away because so many people want to go.

“It’s hard to go over there and see these kids fighting for their lives sometimes, but to know they have a place that is so wonderful, for them to go to while they are sick, you leave with a smile,” Gross said.

According to Gross, the football team has been going to AFCH the Friday before every home game for about 20 years, a tradition that started during Barry Alvarez’s coaching tenure. The hockey team has also been making regular visits for about 15 years.

In October, UW Athletics and AFCH began a new collaboration involving Caleb’s Pitch, an organization that is, “dedicated to creating memorable experiences and enhancing the quality of life for children and families confronting serious childhood illnesses,” according to its website.

Combining sports and arts, a different UW-Madison team visits AFCH each month and participates in an atypical painting activity.

The team members put on protective goggles and hold up a canvas, allowing the patients to squirt them using paint-filled syringes.

After the student-athletes are covered with a collage of colors, the children leave with their signed canvas. According to Gross, this activity can help the children mentally associate the syringes with enjoyable experiences rather than pain.

The children keep their artwork, but also keep the memories. Being icons of the community, UW and its student-athletes giving these unforgettable moments is, at the end of the day, what Badgers Give Back is all about.

“It makes me feel better as an alum knowing that the university isn’t this untouchable thing, but it does reach out to the community,” Berge said. “The fact that the UW is willing to open their doors, and I guarantee not everybody does that, it makes me feel more proud to be a Badger.”

Badgers Give Back did not create a tradition of giving at UW-Madison. It simply illuminated and expanded on an existing culture that is changing lives, building friendships, making memories and giving alumni like Berge a university to be proud of.

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