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600 strong, BYU athletes are in a service league all their own

By Shaun Stahle

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, July 14 2014 10:00 a.m. MDT

Chloe Richardson, BYU freshman track star from Arizona, left; Lexi Eaton, center, highly acclaimed athlete on the BYU women's basketball and track teams; and Ashley Garfield, right, of the BYU women's basketball team, join in a moment of fun with several hundred young women in the Springville Utah Dry Creek Stake on June 10, 2014, in the mountains at the Heber Valley Camp. The three athletes speak regularly to youth groups to share their experiences as an expression of their appreciation to donors who sponsor their scholarships. Each shared moments of triumph and challenge while encouraging the young women to create dreams of their own.

Shaun Stahle, LDS Philanthropies

When it comes to rendering service in the community, student-athletes at BYU are in a league all their own. Each year more than 600 student-athletes provide service in the surrounding communities, lending their muscle and life’s experiences for the benefit of others.

“No university in the country has a program like this,” said Bob Wakefield, who has co-chaired this community outreach service project for BYU with his wife Cindy since 2003. “We visit the national conventions and hear what others are doing. No other university reports anything of the magnitude or scale of these athletes. And what makes this service still more unique are the spiritual aspects of teaching and testifying.”

Over the years, this service has taken the shape of many projects, including laying sod, building homes through Heart2Home, visiting patients in hospitals and assisted living centers, honoring children with special needs and treating needy families at Christmas.

One of the highly popular forms of service comes in addressing youth groups in devotionals, school assemblies, youth conferences, girls camps or Eagle Scout court of honors.

“What I find interesting,” said Bob Wakefield, “is that the high-profile athletes are also the ones most eager to accept speaking invitations,” commenting on how Tyler Haws led the list of speakers last year.

In the course of a year, the Wakefields coordinate upwards of 250 requests for student-athlete speakers, which amounts to approximately 1,500 hours of community service.

In early June, Hayden Palmer, a decorated swimmer, addressed the graduating class of a charter school in Salt Lake County. He spoke of dreams and how they ignited his desire to work hard and set high goals. His ambition, he said, was to win a state championship as a sophomore in high school. Swimming in the championship heat, he described how the defending champion who was a senior was nearly a full body length ahead — a lead that was almost insurmountable, he said.

Without drawing attention to himself and without launching into dramatic fanfare, Palmer simply told how his hard work had given him a deep reservoir of strength to draw from, allowing him to stroke harder and kick faster, propelling him to the championship.

On another evening, high in the mountains at the Heber Valley Girls Camp, three female athletes walked from table to table during the dinner hour, visiting with several hundred young women from the Springville Dry Creek Stake. Soon after they led the girls up the hill to an amphitheater carved out in the trees where they joined in singing camp songs and then, one by one, shared their testimonies.

Chloe Richardson, a freshman track star from Arizona, delighted the girls with her pink tennis shoes by kicking her foot high in the air. She then related her personal plight in considering whether to serve a mission. Her personal struggles and inner thoughts resonated with the girls, some of whom were close to her age and facing similar challenges.

Ashley Garfield, a member of the women’s basketball team, told how athletes improve their ability to compete by improving their strength. Greater physical strength, she said, comes by increasing resistance. She then opened the scriptures to show the young women how the Lord uses the same principle of resistance in the form of challenges and trials to strengthen faith.

Lexi Eaton, a highly acclaimed athlete who competes on the women’s basketball and track teams, captivated the girls with her stories of prayer, scripture study and service. She chose five girls from the audience to join her on the stage and asked them about a deep passion they felt for some talent or activity. After conversing with each and causing the girls to laugh, she turned more solemn and asked how each would feel if the ability to participate in her passion was suddenly taken away?

She went on to explain how her passion to play basketball was abruptly taken from her for nine months after an ACL tear in the knee.

“Here I was,” she said in an emotional voice, “a college athlete who couldn’t do something as simple as bend my knee.” Horrible thoughts haunted her, she said, leaving her to wonder if she’d ever play again.

The young women sat motionless as she shared personal anecdotes of persistence and faith, telling how a teammate’s conversion stemmed from a gospel discussion on a road trip one night.

Surrounded by towering trees as evening temperatures cooled, the three athletes lingered long after the devotional to converse with the young women in small groups.

“I’ve invited athlete speakers before,” said Bryan Korth, a stake priesthood leader at the camp. “They always do a good job. They have a way of touching these kids.”

In another setting, following a weekend youth conference in Las Vegas, a counselor in the stake presidency wrote a letter to express appreciation for the teachings and example of a football player and his wife.

“There are not enough exclamation points to adequately express our gratitude,” he said. “Your efforts to develop men and women of Christ are working." The youths listened intently to Adam and Cassidy Hine as they captivated them with their stories and charming personality as a couple.

“Adam spoke of being the type of flag bearer — like those at BYU football games — who is committed to excellence and embraces virtue.” He described how the couple then took their place as flag bearers in the forefront of the youths to lead them in a march to the Las Vegas Temple. “Adult leaders told me that as a result of the Hines’ comments, many youth were inspired to make the temple a part of their future,” he said.

One of the high-profile outreach programs that BYU student-athletes participate in each year is a health campaign called Cougar Strong.

Last year, more than 12,000 elementary school students in Utah County and points south were encouraged by healthy, well-sculpted athletes to care for their bodies with proper nutrition, sleep and strict avoidance of harmful substances.

Because of a hearty donation by a BYU patron, each student received a T-shirt proclaiming his or her desire to be Cougar Strong. “Teachers tell us that the kids wear the T-shirts with a lot of pride,” Cindy Wakefield said.

“It works,” she said. “These athletes have a great effect on kids.”

In their 11 years of service, the Wakefields have many stories to tell, like when the track team delivered five bicycles to a family with five children on Christmas Eve; or how former quarterback Riley Nelson went well out of his way to befriend a young boy who was raised in an abusive home and struggled to make friends. After spending a few hours with the BYU quarterback during Sports Hero Day, the attitude of the boy changed from defiant to compliant, Cindy said.

Even though they are serving others, it’s the student-athletes who are rewarded the most, Bob Wakefield said. “These are usually returned missionaries who know what it feels like to bless others. They often come to our office begging for opportunities to speak or serve.”

Bryan Kehl, a former BYU linebacker and now NFL player, was always asking to speak. “He was quick to accept any invitation, even when he was out of state on another speaking engagement,” Cindy Wakefield said.

“There is great satisfaction in seeing the growth of these athletes,” Cindy continued. “They arrive as green freshmen but leave polished and disciplined, like the young man who turned around his troubled life by serving others and is now planning a temple marriage.

“For all their opportunities and talents,” Cindy Wakefield said, “BYU athletes don’t display an attitude of entitlement but show appreciation for their scholarships by sharing the blessings they’ve been given,” putting them in a league all their own.

Shaun Stahle is a senior communications specialist for LDS Philanthropies, an entity of the Presiding Bishopric Office that receives donations made to the LDS Church. EMAIL: shaun_stahle@byuy.edu

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