July 22, 2013
When Kent Haslam was named the University of Montana's 20th Director of Athletics last September, he mostly stuck to the standard AD handbook during his debut press conference, highlighting his desire for the Grizzlies to continue pursuing excellence in both competition and in the classroom.
But then he deviated from the expected script and stressed a third component of his vision for his department and its nearly 300 student-athletes: community service.
The message was received and put into action during the 2012-13 academic year. When the final spreadsheets had been counted last month, they reported Montana's student-athletes spent over 700 hours engaged in community service.
Haslam acknowledges the obvious public-relations boost that comes from his student-athletes doing good for various causes around western Montana, but much more important in his mind is the benefit that comes back to the people performing the service.
"There is the PR side of it, of course, but in my opinion that's pretty minimal and certainly not why we stress it," he says. "The reason it's important is because learning to serve and be a part of a community sets you up for success for the rest of your life.
"It really helps develop the entire student-athlete, because you learn when you serve other people. You see how fortunate you are and how much you've been given, and it helps you understand you're not as bad off as you maybe thought you were."
Those community service hours were spread out between dozens of causes during the school year, from the volleyball team working on a build project for Habitat for Humanity to the men's basketball team showing up at Hellgate Elementary for the school's Fall into Fitness campaign.
From the golf team packing boxes at the Montana Food Bank Network to Griz football players spending an afternoon at Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
Performed in a large city, these would be appearances with an underlying who-are-these-guys vibe. Not in Missoula.
"I think that's part of the unique experience of being a student-athlete at the University of Montana," Haslam added. "The university as a whole, with the athletic department being a part of that, is so ingrained in this region and community that it only accentuates the need for service.
"And it's a fantastic way for the community to get to know who these student-athletes are when they take off their helmets or when they come off the court or put down their racket."
Brooke Bray, a second-team All-Big Sky Conference middle blocker for the Griz volleyball team, is one of those athletes. That Bray had a list of service experiences to carefully consider when asked her most memorable would no doubt delight Haslam.
Turns out it was a morning spent at the Poverello Center. A simple painting project and some lunch preparation may not seem like they'd move the difference-maker needle, but for Bray and her teammates the feedback was immediate and it was heartfelt.
"We painted the walls in a staircase, and we cut up some potatoes for lunch," she says. "It sounds like such a simple thing, but it means so much to them and what they're doing. We had people walk by and say, `Thank you so much.'
"Opportunities like that give us a chance to give back to the people who support us, whether they go to our matches or not. This town lives for Grizzly athletics, so it's nice to get out there and bond with people in the community."
Haslam's emphasis on community service was not a novel idea to Bray. Travel south of Seattle 45 minutes and you'll find both the Bonney Lake Tavern and the Midtown Grill. You will also likely find Grandpa Gary, the outsized personality who owns both establishments.
"He has always given back to his community," Bray says of her maternal grandfather. "His businesses sponsor local youth teams, and he gives to local high schools, even though none of his grandkids attended them. It's always been his teaching to give back to the people around you."
That mindset is trickling down now generations deep.
"We have 14 people on that side of the family, and last year's Christmas project was to give back in 2013," Bray says. "Give blood. Send someone you've lost touch with a note. Just do something above and beyond twice a month, no matter how small it might be."
It's like a pyramid scheme gone right. Fourteen people take 28 actions per month and by next Christmas it snowballs into 336 instances of making a difference in someone's life, whether directly or not.
One service project that will show up over and over again next winter when the family's activities are tallied: donations to Mountain Home Montana, where Bray is spending time this summer on a research project as she works toward a psychology degree.
"I sent out an email to everyone on my mom's side who's participating with a list of things that (Mountain Home Montana) needs," Bray says. "The last time I went home, I came back with a box full of diapers and other items to donate, plus $300."
But have Haslam's coaches bought in?
You might think trying to win 50 games the last two seasons while going 38-2 against Big Sky Conference opponents and making back-to-back NCAA tournaments would have a coach trying to limit distractions outside of the court and the classroom for his guys, but that's not how Wayne Tinkle approaches it.
His team paints the M on Mt. Sentinel every fall and gets out to local schools as much it can during the year so that his six-plus-foot heroes can be hands-on role models and inspirations for even the Grizzlies' smallest fans.
"Getting out in the community is really a teaching tool. It gives our guys a skill set so that when they're done here and graduate, they are ready to attack the rest of their lives and be responsible human beings," Tinkle says. "It really sets the tone that it's not just about them.
"And it lets people know that these are quality kids who get involved in the community and do a lot of good."
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