Before the Gonzaga Men’s Soccer Team was even setting up plays in a game this season, it was already making moves off the field. For over 12 years, the team has partnered with Catholic Charities Eastern Washington for their annual food drive and wrote cards to children in Saint Margaret’s, a Spokane family homeless shelter run by Catholic Charities.
This year was particularly successful for the men’s soccer team, and the team collected 100 pounds of food for Catholic Charities. All of GU's D1 athletic teams participate in the annual food drive, driving home the importance of volunteering to the Zag's student athletes.
Sierra Heinen, the community relations manager at Catholic Charities Eastern Washington, explained how much it meant to see the men’s team and other athletes volunteering in the Spokane community.
“I think it matters in a lot of ways” Heinen said. "[It] sets a really good example. When you're an athlete or a public figure or anything like that I think you have a good opportunity to have a platform and to be a role model for kids in the community.”
It’s not just the members of the non-profits the teams work with that see the benefits of volunteering though. Emma Moon, the director of life skills development at the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, agreed with Heinen about the impact of volunteering, both on the community and with the athletes.
As a student athlete, Moon said that it’s easy to get wrapped up in their coursework and training. At the SAAC, they work hard to give the athletes another perspective by giving them volunteer opportunities.
“Volunteering can be a humbling experience for student athletes,” Moon said. “It shows them that not everyone in our community is afforded the opportunities, resources and support that they receive at Gonzaga.”
Volunteering allows the team to connect to the fans they see in the stands in a way they wouldn’t normally. In fact, it can open doors to new opportunities.
“In some settings, it can allow the opportunity for mentorship,” Moon said.
Athletes often relish the unique perspective volunteering gives them, and cherish the close bonds it can create. The specific work and charities the athletes volunteer at are chosen and organized by the SAAC, but Moon said that the athletes are often very hands on in terms of getting involved.
“Though SAAC representatives and their leadership, athletic coaches, Athletic Director Mike Roth and staff all encouraging it, student-athletes continue to want to be involved year after year” Moon said.
Seeing the Zags athletic teams come out to support the community doesn’t only set a good example, it emphasizes how important it is to have members of a community come out to support their local non profit. As a community based organization, Catholic Charities Eastern Washington lives and dies by its community engagement. Heinen agreed with that point.
“As a nonprofit we thrive on our community partnerships," Heinen said. "If it weren't for our volunteers, if it weren't for community partnerships, we wouldn't be able to do the work that we do because so much of what we do is you know donated or volunteer helping their time if not donating financially or physically.”
It can be easy to think of GU students as separate from the Spokane community, especially the athletes, but the men’s soccer team’s involvement with Catholic Charities shows that there are ways for them to get connected to the community and give back to Spokane.
Once the athletes are involved, they are treated no different than other members of the community. In fact, a day of volunteering for the student athletes looks the same as volunteering for any other member of the community. However, this year looks a lot different because of COVID-19, which has forced the student athletes and their teams to change how they participate.
“I know the athlete programs have been completely different this year because of COVID, so anything they’ve done to help us has been remote,” Heinen said.
Normally, however, the athletes of the men’s soccer team would get to participate in volunteering just like anybody else.
“In a normal not COVID world,” Heinen said, “The athletes would have a chance to participate in volunteer opportunities like everyone else. They get a very similar experience to everyone else.”
Because the opportunities for volunteering are a lot more limited now, Heinen played up the importance of taking the ones that are available.
“I think during COVID the opportunities are a lot more limited, that’s where the donation drives come in,” Heinen said.
Though COVID-19 has put a damper on the volunteering activities athletes can do, student athletes are still getting involved.
“Our outreach events are limited to mainly virtual classroom visits, internal collections, sending handwritten cards to local children and fleece blanket making,” said Moon of the current state of affairs.
Still, volunteering among the Spokane community remains a special part of what it means to be a Zag and a student athlete at GU, a part that often draws student athletes to Spokane.
“It can show them what a strong community Spokane is, and how supportive they are of Gonzaga," Moon said. "So, whether you come from Seattle or Spain, there are people here cheering you on. [It] pushes student-athletes to recognize that they are part of something bigger than themselves.”