By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Jay Jacobs made a commitment to help end child hunger in Alabama. As a foster parent, Auburn's Director of Athletics knew first-hand that children are going hungry within 15 minutes of where he lives.
He also knew that many student-athletes arrive at Auburn without the support and necessities that every child needs and deserves, such as ample food and adequate housing.
"Our job in athletics administration is to recognize such challenges and then do whatever it takes to overcome them," says Ward Swift, Auburn's Chief Marketing Officer.
"Whether they are boys and girls in our community or members of our athletic teams, these are our children. They need our help. And we will not let them down," Swift says.
Jacobs pledged the support of Auburn Athletics in the fight against hunger to Dean June Henton and Harriet Giles of the Hunger Solutions Institute at Auburn University.
The End Child Hunger in Alabama initiative is succeeding because of many caring partners, including one close to the hearts of the Auburn Family; the Jason Dufner Foundation, which is dedicated to ending child hunger in Lee County.
"Jason lives with a belief that those who are able should assist the less fortunate in their time of need," Swift says. "Jason's 'Weekend Backpack of Food' program has been a great, hands-on way for Auburn Athletics to get involved."
Each week, Auburn student-athletes and Athletics staff members come together at Auburn Arena to pack backpacks with food.
In 2016, Auburn student-athletes filled and delivered more than 56,000 bags of weekend food for children who would have otherwise gone hungry.
In addition to volunteering, several student-athletes learn about food scarcity in their academic majors, have the opportunity to minor in Hunger Studies, and participate in Auburn's flagship chapter of Universities Fighting World Hunger.
Auburn Athletics also partnered with local and regional media to help tell the story and engage audiences to end child hunger. Auburn teamed up with WRBL-TV and the Food Bank of East Alabama to stock the "Kids' Summer Cupboard."
"But what's most rewarding is to see what Athletics staff members initiate on their own," Swift says. "This truly speaks to the character of our people."
Auburn's softball program created an initiative called, "Strike Out Hunger," collecting more than 7,000 pounds of food donated by generous fans during the 2016 season. Auburn gymnastics started a program called, "Bring Three, Get in Free."
Auburn University and Auburn Athletics are receiving attention internationally for their efforts in the war on hunger, Swift says.
Jacobs delivered a keynote address at a global summit at the University of Missouri, where he was recognized as one of the world leaders in the fight to end child hunger.
"Jay's address to members of PUSH (Presidents United to Solve Hunger) captured so perfectly what this particular 16 for '16 commitment embodied," Swift says.
Excerpts from closing comments made by Jay Jacobs at a speech he delivered at a Global Summit on World Hunger:
"The only way to effect change is for someone to step up and take responsibility. That's what June Henton and Harriet Giles did in 2004 when they started Auburn's War on Hunger. That's who they are - change agents. That's what everyone associated with PUSH is doing - creating change. That's who you are. And that's what we're striving to do in Auburn Athletics - because that's who we aspire to be.
When I first heard about the End Child Hunger in Alabama initiative, I thought maybe we would have the chance to help one child. I have since realized that through collective action, like those being championed by PUSH, we will be able to help a generation of children. Great leadership, great vision, great teammates - academics and athletics working together is what we need to end hunger on our campuses, as well as our states, nations, and world.
In closing, let me make this one observation. At its core, caring is the relevant commonality that bonds all of us here today. Our respective organizations and universities are all made up of unique individuals who care and who act on that passion as we strive to contribute to the solution to global challenges like hunger. Those of you here today, whether you're from the University of Missouri, from PUSH, or from other sectors of our society, you don't sit back and wait on others to take action. You actually believe you can make a difference in this world and you act on that belief. And I want you to know how much that inspires me.
I began my comments today by talking about winning, and I can assure you, given the pressure that comes with college sports, it's easy for winning to become the sole focus for coaches, ADs, and our athletes. The need to win can become all-consuming. We tell ourselves that we need no distractions; that this is not the right time to get involved in anything else. But when this happens, I am reminded of the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said "The time is always right to do what is right". We think doing "what is right" in this instance is feeding a hungry child.
What we need to remember is that we are not just preparing our student-athletes for the next competition, but for a lifetime of success and leadership. So the question is, why can't we use the power of athletics to create an expanded culture of winning where the concept of team refers not only to sports, but working together for the greater good of all humankind? I'll take that challenge and I invite you to join me."
Jacobs' commitment, and the investment of Auburn Athletics, have raised the profile of this vital issue, say Henton and Giles, Auburn University's longtime champions in the fight against hunger.
"There is nothing that could have given greater momentum or inspired us more in the fight against child hunger than having Auburn Athletics join the movement." Says Henton, Dean of Auburn's College of Human Sciences, and Executive Director of the Hunger Solutions Institute. "Bringing the competitive spirit, stamina, and heartfelt conviction of Auburn athletes, coaches, and staff to the war on hunger has been a win/win for Auburn and for the children of the state of Alabama."
Giles, who chairs the End Child Hunger Task Force and serves as Managing Director of Auburn's Hunger Solutions Institute, lauded the collaboration with Auburn Athletics.
"Jay Jacobs committed to partnering with the Hunger Solutions Institute to make End Child Hunger in Alabama the signature outreach initiative of Auburn Athletics for now and years to come," Giles said. "To my knowledge, no other athletics department in the country has made such a bold and long-term commitment to a singular issue that so profoundly impacts the health and well-being of children, families, and communities.
"As we begin a new year, we look forward to continuing to work in partnership to create and refine a best practices model for social good that we hope will become the standard for other athletics departments throughout the state and nation."
Feedback from key stakeholders, Swift says, is the ultimate measure of Auburn Athletics' value to this ongoing 16 for '16 commitment.
"Dean June Henton and Harriet Giles give me confidence that we are on the right path and that we are in fact making a difference in the lives of many children in our community," Swift says.