By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – When they’re not competing in their respective sports or concentrating on coursework, University of Nebraska at Kearney student-athletes are focused on being difference makers in the community.
The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t going to change that.
Although their monthly service projects may look a little different these days, members of the UNK Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) continue to find ways to give back.
“This year, they’ve gotten really creative with how they make those connections, whether it’s virtually or socially distanced. They’re still getting out there and doing good things,” said SAAC adviser Rachael Page, an assistant athletic director and senior woman administrator in the UNK Athletic Department.
The group’s most recent project is a perfect example of their creativity and flexibility.
In previous years, UNK student-athletes visited local elementary schools to read stories and interact with students. They wanted to do that again, but in-person activities aren’t allowed because of COVID-19 safety measures.
So, SAAC members found another way to make it happen.
Instead of going to the elementary schools, UNK student-athletes recorded videos of themselves reading children’s books and uploaded them to the UNK Athletics YouTube channel, where they’re available for any teacher or parent to use. More than 30 student-athletes across numerous sports participated in the project, which features 16 books promoting diversity and Black history, female empowerment, positive self-image and kindness.
“We want to encourage children to embrace their own selves and promote positive self-worth,” said UNK senior Fayth Jackson of Lincoln, who called the project “an inclusive and loving engagement opportunity.”
Jackson, a member of the Loper cheer squad and SAAC’s social media co-chair, teamed up with community relations chair Mackenzie Puckett of Grand Island to spearhead the reading project.
“Our goal is to allow children to see characters who are inspirational, beautiful, diverse, smart and hardworking,” said Puckett, a graduate student who competes on the track and field team. “Books are a crucial part of children’s learning and how they see themselves and the world. Everyone should see a character who looks like them, so they know they can be a hero/heroine in their own story.”
Page shared the videos with educators across central Nebraska, and they’ve spread even farther through social media.
“We’re sad we can’t interact with the kids in-person this year, but now there’s an opportunity for even more students to listen to the Lopers read on YouTube,” Puckett said.
Locally, Emerson Elementary School teacher Taylor Peters has already shown several of the videos in her third grade classroom.
“This is a great way for students to get the opportunity to hear other adults reading to them,” said Peters, noting the benefits in areas such as fluency, expression and reading comprehension.
It’s also a fun activity for her students, who get a chance to learn about UNK and the “amazing” things Lopers are doing.
“They get so excited for this. It is special for them to see positive role models here in town reading stories right to them. While they would love to meet with them face to face, this is truly the next best thing and we have the opportunity available any time we want,” said Peters, a 2016 UNK graduate who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in educational administration through the university.
For their January project, SAAC members created inspirational cards for a young boy battling brain cancer. In March, they’re competing against Fraternity and Sorority Life to collect donations for the Loper Pantry on campus and raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation by cleaning the Buffalo County Fairgrounds.
“Our SAAC group is truly an awesome bunch of students, athletes and people,” Puckett said. “The Lopers love Kearney and the support this community has given us throughout this hard time. Our student-athletes recognize that regardless of how COVID is affecting our competition schedules, we wouldn’t be the programs we are without the Loper community’s support.”
And they’re always happy to return the favor.
“We want to give back to the community that has given us so much,” Jackson said. “With COVID-19, many lives were impacted immensely, and we learned how quickly and drastically things can change. The least we can do as student-athletes is show our support and try to bring joy to others.”
— Taylor Peters (@TAYKITorLeaveIT) February 26, 2021
The SAAC reading project features the following books and UNK student-athletes:
“Mae Among the Stars” – Quintez McCray (football)
“Alphabreaths” – Maddie Wiltse and Brooke Carlson (women’s basketball)
“Hank Finds Inspiration” – Gabby Buttermore (swimming)
“Thank You, Omu!” – Mackenzie Puckett and Haley Schall (women’s track and field)
“Be You!” – Hannah Hardy (soccer)
“Rain Before Rainbows” – Parker Humpal and Bridget Barker (soccer)
“Billie Jean!” – Fayth Jackson and Jessie Daake (cheer)
“If I Were a Ballerina” – Sierra Rohs and Payton Rhen (soccer)
“Remarkably You” – Megan Cook, Kassidy Kirsch and Kylee Moore (soccer)
“A Boy Like You” – Emery Mounce, Isabel Mellick and Madeline Lecuona (soccer)
“I am Rosa Parks” – Nate Konecky and Gabriel Amegatcher (football)
“Most People” – Molly Platt and Jacylan Doering (soccer)
“I Believe I Can” – Paige Lucero, Allison Comer and Avery Mitchell (golf)
“Cheerful Chick” – Allie Daro (cheer)
“I am Jackie Robinson” – Hunter Kraus and Blake Bubak (football)
“Pocket Full of Colors” – Jaida McEwen, Abby Everitt and Alex Homan (track and field)