By Laura Bernero, Hastings College
For many teams attending this year's NAIA DII National Women's Basketball National Championship, community service is not just a component of their team identity-it is their lifeblood.
This year, Bethel College Head Coach Jody Martinez is attending the National Championship for the 7th time and says he encourages his team to embody a spirit of sportsmanship and service throughout their season, and especially when they are at the tournament.
"God has given these girls the ability to play. It is important for them to appreciate the gift and use their skills to help others," Martinez said.
The NAIA Champions of Character program is a system of five core values — integrity, respect, responsibility, sportsmanship and servant leadership-that all teams in the division are encouraged to put into practice.
The NAIA Live 5 program, which just started this year, is specifically designed to show student-athletes how they can apply the five core values both on and off the field or court.
Martinez encourages the girls on his team to volunteer in their community in Mishawaka, Ind., which has proven to be a positive experience for the student athletes as well.
"He is always helping us do new projects," said Kristin Hicks, a senior forward for the Bethel Pilots. "Whether we're in practice or at a local elementary school, our coaches remind us that we are still being examples of character and integrity."
Like the Pilots, teams from all over the country implement a spirit of service on their campuses and in their communities, but also practice good sportsmanship and honesty when they step onto the court. This is one way the Champions of Character program has been a success, said Kristin Gillette, the Champions of Character director for the NAIA.
Gillette played as a conference athlete herself when she was in college and remembers coming to Sioux City for the DII National Championship when she played for William Jewel College. She remembers what it's like to be on the court.
"We want each player to focus on being the best competitor they can be while still playing the way the rules intend," Gillette said. "When people hear Champions of Character, they automatically think community service. But it's equally important on the court.
The Live 5 student athlete training has participants complete four sessions over their four years of college. In the first two years, students are encouraged to get to know the core values and implement them in their sport and on their campus. In their junior and senior years, the program shows students how they can embody the same values as leaders in their school and in their future career.
"Most teams already do community service. That's not unique," Gillette said. "And a lot of teams talk about the core values in their orientation. But what matters is if they can carry those values through their season and into their lives," Gillette said.
The Milligan College Buffaloes participated in Tuesday's Special Olympics basketball clinic as part of the tournament activities. Kayla Kelly, a junior on the team, says that service is important to their team throughout the school year.
Back home, the Buffaloes have a close relationship with Mount Mission, a boarding school near their campus. They conduct basketball clinics with the kids there and have forged friendships with some of the students. The team also helps coach a Special Olympics men's softball team and practices with them during their preseason in the fall.
"It's really special. I love seeing the smiles on their faces," Kelly said.
Erika Isham, a sophomore at Indiana Wesleyan University, said that every member of their women's basketball team participates in a one-on-one mentoring program with elementary students in their community.
"We stick with them all school year and do things like go to lunch, play games and do homework. It is such a cool thing to form those friendships and play with the kids," Isham said.
Isham also said her coaches encourage the girls to embody positivity and integrity in all aspects of their student life, including basketball practice and games.
"It's not just about winning. They help us see the bigger picture," Isham said.
David Harris, Sports Representative for the City of Sioux City at this year's national tournament, said that participating teams have always done a good job of modeling sportsmanship, no matter what stage of the tournament they are in.
"The NAIA does a great job of promoting its Champions of Character program. They want to make sure their student athletes are well rounded. It's not just about the games," Harris said.
"I think being a follower of Christ inspires me personally. I know that he would do anything for anyone and I want to try to emulate that in any fashion I can. When you read stories in the Bible, you see his heart for the least of these. I want to have that same heart in my life," Kelly said.