October 19, 2007

Sporting goods equipment drive will benefit troops

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Members of the Land of Lincoln AmeriCorps from Southern Illinois University Carbondale are teaming with students from Carbondale's Parrish Elementary School to "Make a Difference" while saying "thanks" to American service personnel stationed overseas. In honor of Make a Difference Day on Oct. 27, the grade school, with help from the AmeriCorps students, is hosting a sporting goods equipment drive to benefit the troops.

Samantha Okon, a junior from Arlington Heights majoring in communication disorders and sciences, spends many hours each week in Maria Jessup's first grade class at Parrish School through the SIUC AmeriCorps program. She helps with literacy, phonemic awareness and more. As Okon considered how best to celebrate "Make a Difference Day," she recalled that in remembrance of 9/11 the grade-schoolers completed the sentence "I'm proud to be an American because…" with pictures and words. Their poignant messages and her thoughts of people she knows who are serving or previously served in the armed forces inspired her to find a way to honor the sacrifice of military personnel.

"I got thinking about how when you're away from home you miss the little things," Okon said. "These men and women do so much for us, it's important for us to do even just a little something for them. Even to give them the sporting equipment to play a little baseball or tennis is a nice touch from home that shows we care."

She learned of Give2TheTroops (www.give2thetroops.com), a not-for-profit corporation formed to help deployed American troops with gifts of recreational items and other treats from home. Parrish School jumped on board to host the collection of sporting equipment and Okon recruited DICK's Sporting Goods as the project sponsor. DICK's started out the collection by donating $300 in new equipment.

Fellow AmeriCorps members Kyle Hauenstein, a senior in workforce education from Mediapolis, Iowa, and Sandi Tite, an AmericaCorps member from Pinckneyville, have helped with the project, creating posters and decorating drop-off boxes for the collection drive. And, the kids at Parrish School have embraced the project, bringing all kinds of balls and sporting gear for the troops.

Items sought include baseballs, Nerf footballs, ping-pong sets, tennis balls, Frisbees, playing cards, softballs, Whiffle balls, racquetballs, Hackey Saks, Yo-yos and baseball gloves. The collection continues through Oct. 29. Okon said anyone may drop off new or gently used sporting goods equipment from the list at the drop box just inside the school door near the office.

"Make a Difference Day is a national day of helping others and trying to make a positive difference in people's lives," said Mythili Rundblad, coordinator of student development at SIUC. "As we thought of events being planned in neighborhoods and communities across the country for this year's Make a Difference Day, I encouraged the 15 members of the SIUC Land of Lincoln AmeriCorps to consider projects that preferably would involve the children they tutor and mentor. As coordinator, I could easily say, 'Here is what I want all of you to do.' But, the members learn so much more when given the opportunity to develop service projects. I encourage their creativity and awareness of community needs and want them to develop their skills in planning programs."

Rundblad credits Okon with not only the idea for the Sports Equipment Drive for the U.S. troops but also following up with research on the Internet, recruiting DICK'S Sporting Goods as sponsor and getting the collection drive up and running. She said it's an undertaking that required considerable effort and organization.

"Samantha came up with the wonderful idea of a sports equipment drive to benefit soldiers overseas," Rundblad said. "The other members of the team are all working with different ideas for service projects at their school sites."

Iesha Wilson, a senior from Carbondale majoring in English, is another AmeriCorps member spearheading a special project. Wilson is organizing a canned food drive at the Du Quoin Elementary School. Likewise Creighton Jackson, a sophomore psychology major from Camargo, is leading a canned food drive at Du Quoin Middle School. At both schools, students and staff are collecting canned goods from Oct. 22 to 31 to donate to the Du Quoin Food Pantry in honor of Make a Difference Day.

"It is rewarding for me to see our students strive to be excellent citizen-scholars," Rundblad said. "Each of the 15 members chosen to be on our campus Land of Lincoln AmeriCorps team is outstanding. They tutor and mentor children for more than 24 hours a week, take a full class load and then initiate special service projects like this one. It is a major commitment to be in AmeriCorps."