Illini Serve Communities Through SALSC
July 31, 2014
When student-athletes aren't on the field or hitting the books, they have the opportunity to make a difference in their community and communities around the world. With different groups to choose from, Student-Athletes Leading Social Change (SALSC) is one of many organizations on campus designed to help others. SALSC is a passionate coalition of current and former college student-athletes who want to change the world on a local, national and international level. Junior soccer player Amy Feher got her first look at SALSC during freshmen orientation when she was introduced to organizations that were student-athlete based. The group caught Feher's attention because they talked about the first mission trip to Kenya and all that SALSC does to help the Champaign-Urbana area.
"It was something I found that I got interested in and the more I've been in it, the more I've found that I'm more passionate about it than I realized," Feher said.
The SALSC group at Illinois helps out local organizations including the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen in Champaign, participates in Chicago Cares volunteer opportunities, including a Serve-a-thon in June and the program sponsors student-athletes to go on mission trips during the summer.
The Founding of SALSC
One of the skills that Illinois teaches its student-athletes is leadership with the help of the Leadership Academy run by Jeff Janssen, a renowned leadership trainer. Janssen wanted to provide students with the opportunity to go out and make a difference but also giving kids the chance to partner with student-athletes from other schools with community service or service opportunities, so he started an organization called Student-Athletes Leading Social Change. The SALSC program began with student-athletes from Michigan, Lehigh and Illinois as the original three schools.
Former Illinois swimmer CeCe Marizu was one of the founding members of the SALSC program and she led the Illini on SALSC's first-ever service trip to Kenya. To raise funds for the trip, Marizu created Illinois' Jock Jams event, a student-athlete variety show which raised $6,000 for the cause. Throughout her career at Illinois, Marizu was very involved in Illinois' Hometown Heroes program and the Leadership Academy. She was even awarded the Illinois Leadership Academies prestigious Leader of Distinction Award.
"When I was swimming at Illinois, it was one of the best experiences of my life," Marizu said. "Swimming definitely took up a lot of my time with school. Kathy Kaler was our academic counselor and she was amazing. She kept us involved in our hometown campaign and she was always getting us to volunteer. I always loved that aspect. My dad is from Africa, so part of me always felt like my heart needed to do more."
Participation in the SALSC program is not required, but ever since it was started there have been student-athletes at Illinois that want to participate. Athletes have been going on mission trips for the last six years from Illinois, including trips to Kenya, Ecuador, New Orleans and this year to Washington D.C. Janssen and his daughter set up this year's trip, with Marizu, Feher and a group of student-athletes from around the country joining them.
"She was incredible," Feher said of Marizu. "That was probably the best part about the trip was I got to meet this pioneer for the SALSC program here and she gave me some good tips to make the SALSC program at Illinois better. She lived up to my expectations and maybe even exceeded them."
As for what Marizu thought of Feher, "She's a soccer stud which is great but she's got a big heart which is even better."
Trip to D.C.
Feher was given the chance to go on her first mission trip to Washington D.C. this July. The weeklong trip was full of bonding experiences for the SALSC members - including going to a Washington Nationals baseball game - and helping out at various organizations in the D.C. area.
"I grew up in Akron, Ohio, where Cleveland is probably the worst poverty in my area," Feher said. "D.C. was a whole other extreme. You would see homeless people on every street. It was similar to what I've seen but there was more exposure to it. Wherever we went there was more of it because it was a city, it was just magnified."
The group worked with a new organization every day, but most of the organizations were centered on D.C. Central Kitchen. D.C. Kitchens dish out 5,000 meals every day and are distributed at little or no cost to 100 nearby homeless shelters, transitional homes and nonprofit organizations. Its mission is to use food as a tool to strengthen bodies, empower minds and build communities. The main kitchen offers a rigorous Culinary Job Training program for unemployed men and women who want to replace homelessness, addiction and incarceration with new careers and changed lives.
SALSC started its volunteering for the week by supporting veterans coming in to visit the World War II memorial for an Honor Flight and afterwards got its first taste of D.C. Kitchens. On the second day, the group went to the Ronald McDonald house. Ronald McDonald homes are set up throughout the country as places for families to stay when their children are in treatment facilities. The SALSC group cleaned the whole place in the morning and then purchased and prepared eight big pans of lasagna for the house as part of the group's donation, before spending the afternoon at a hospital. The next day the group went to a corn field, where they husked corn and filled a minivan before giving the produce to D.C. Kitchens.
Midway through the week they spent the day at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. After a year in the making, the Washington Nationals baseball team opened its brand new youth facility this past March. The Academy is set up as an after-school program during the school year and is an all-day program in the summer. The program offers meals for the kids during the day along with cooking, classes and reading time. They also have softball and teamwork activities mixed in throughout the day, as the program uses baseball to instill core values in kids.
Later that day the group went to KIPP, which is a school a part of the Knowledge is Power Program. The successful program offers small classes for kids from bad areas of the city an opportunity to learn school essentials. Feher and her group taught the kids during a leadership seminar, implementing the leadership training she has learned at Illinois. The last day of the trip the group participated in First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Campaign, where they got a workout in while playing with the kids all day.
"I really got a lot out of the situation just seeing how bad life can be," Feher said. "I am really grateful for what I have. I realize I'm at Illinois on a scholarship and I appreciate all of the things that come along with that. I'm really hard on myself and my life and I always wish it was better and going away made me realize that it could be a lot worse, so it was kind of eye opening in that regard."
Maybe the biggest takeaway from the trip was that Feher decided what she wanted to do after she finishes her time at Illinois. She originally wanted to be a doctor, then switched to psychology, but now she is leaning more toward social work.
"I always wanted to help people," Feher said. "I want to start a program like (SALSC). I want to help other people. That's one of the qualities I really pride myself on is that I have the quality to care about other people before myself. When I make other people happy, I'm happy. So I kind of discovered exactly what I want to do when I grow up."
The Future of SALSC at Illinois
Marizu's first job after graduating from Illinois was working at a PR firm, and while she learned a lot during her time there, she knew it wasn't what she really wanted to do for a career. She decided to move to New York City and out of nowhere Janssen called her to ask for her help with keeping the SALSC program intact and now she is the director of the program.
"Swimming in college was really hard and a lot of work," Marizu said. "Most days were challenging but then you got to the competition and you realized why you put in all of that effort. For me, now SALSC is that moment. It's going to be a lot of ups and downs but at the end, the bigger picture is so clear now with what I'm supposed to do. I feel like it's a dream come true.
"If you know where your heart lies at the end of the day, if you wake up and say, `I'm doing something that I love,' even if it takes work, I always tell athletes that if you find a job like your sport, or something that you feel really passionate about now, then you're going to be successful."
D.C. Kitchens also sponsors a program called the Campus Kitchens Project. The program uses its philosophy of taking things that people are going to throw out and using it to help others. For instance, they will take the leftovers from the dorm food and Jimmy John's leftover bread and make food and serve it to people who need it. Feher is hoping to look into the program further and start a branch on Illinois' campus.
Feher prides herself on putting so much time into her workouts for her sport. She stays on campus every summer and doesn't like to take time off from training, but she learned from her experience on the mission trip that it's worth it to give up a week of her time to make an impact somewhere else.
"Our SALSC program here at Illinois is starting to dwindle," Feher said. "It's not as strong as it used to be. My goal coming back is to try and rebuild it. I can give up an hour of running to give an hour to the SALSC program. It's inspired me to find the time to volunteer."
The SALSC program is involved with so many organizations that Feher took a tip from Marizu and thinks the program should focus more on being more involved with one organization. Instead of bagging snacks just the first Tuesday of the month for Daily Bread, maybe bag snacks every Tuesday, otherwise she says people forget about it if it's not happening every week. She also wants to increase the exposure of the group and while Feher would go on another mission trip in the future, she says she would rather pass the baton onto someone else.
"My goal is to get more athletes on the campus involved," Feher said. "If that means I raise money for another athlete to go on a trip instead of me, I'm fulfilling my goal. I want to spread it, I don't want it to be just for me."
"I'm obviously biased but I think Illinois is the greatest school on earth," Marizu said. "It's a place that cultivates your passion and I just had the most amazing mentors while I was there. Kathy told us that we should never settle and that's exactly what every student-athlete and Illinois student should go on and think about is never settling because once you settle, you've closed the door and you never know what it could have led to."
Marizu hopes that student-athletes at Illinois get involved with SALSC at least once during their time at Illinois. As for SALSC as a whole, Marizu would like to see more schools develop a program like it on their campuses.
"I would love for the numbers to get bigger and bigger every year and to have projects throughout the country where you have people who are serving their communities on a regular basis," Marizu said. "It's not just a one week trip, it's something that student-athletes do and it changes what people think, it changes the platform that student-athletes are on.
"I don't think this will be my end all be all. I think I will eventually pass the torch to another student-athlete, but I can't imagine a life where I'm not trying to help someone become a better person. This is a really great opportunity in my life and I hope someone else gets the opportunity after me. The whole organization is really about the student-athlete being able to do things more than what people perceive student-athletes to be. A lot of the perception, especially for football and basketball, is that they're there for their sport only and we want to change that perception. Every athlete can be on the same page and they can be philanthropists, they can be leaders, they can be athletes and they can become people who go on to serve their communities."
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