Student-athletes build special bonds through service

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Neumann Field Hockey with alum Jillian DeFina (front, center) at Saint Francis of Assissi soup kitchen in Scranton, PA.
Neumann Field Hockey with alum Jillian DeFina (front, center) at Saint Francis of Assissi soup kitchen in Scranton, PA.

When Neumann University’s Field Hockey team traveled to Scranton, PA for a matchup against Marywood University on October 10, head coach Sarah Kurpel saw a perfect opportunity to extend serving hands into that community. A former Field Hockey captain and May, 2015 Neumann alum, Jillian DeFina is currently engrossed in a post-graduate year of service at St. Francis of Assissi Soup Kitchen, just down the road from Marywood.

What better way to connect with a former teammate, bond, and extend compassion in the spirit of Neumann’s mission! The help was quite welcome as the team joined Jill for a morning of service at the soup kitchen.

Neumann Women's Soccer team with students who visited with the Caring People Alliance.
Neumann Women’s Soccer team with students who visited with the Caring People Alliance.

One week later, Neumann’s Men’s and Women’s soccer teams took up the call to serve. As the men’s team competed in a homecoming matchup on campus, the women’s team welcomed middle- and high school students from the Caring People Alliance, run out of the West Philadelphia Community Center.

Along with Head Coach Lauren Sciocchetti, the women’s soccer team led visiting students on campus tours, discussed with them college and career aspirations, and brought them out onto the soccer field during halftime. It was a day to build friendships, explore possibilities, and set sights on a bright future.

Neumann Field Hockey and Soccer took up the call to be models of service and compassionate leaders in their respective projects. Likewise, athletes everywhere are privileged with a special spotlight and are called to serve as ambassadors for their schools or communities. With the special visibility they are afforded both on the proverbial “home turf” and through their travels, their sportsmanship and actions inherently portray the values of their communities.

At Neumann, values like Reverence, Integrity, and Balance define the community. Faculty, staff, and students are all expected to uphold and extend these values, acting as leaders who show others what it means to be a Neumann Knight.

Among those values, Service is of critical importance. In the Catholic Franciscan tradition, Neumann students and athletes appreciate the call to go beyond themselves in service to others, sharing their gifts in ways that will benefit the University and other communities.

“I love our service opportunities at Neumann because it allows everyone’s light to shine in the spirit of Saint Francis,” said Sarah Kurpel, head coach of Neumann Field Hockey. “It is very important to me to support each other whenever we can.”

Students from the Caring People Alliance ran drills with the Women's Soccer team during halftime.
Students from the Caring People Alliance ran drills with the Women’s Soccer team during halftime.

Of course, service comes in many forms. From holding a door for someone to answering an intensely personal calling, there is no one “right way” to demonstrate reverence for life through service. So, I was curious. Perhaps we take for granted that service is typically performed in groups, assuming there is a unique value in doing so without actually exploring it. So why, really, do sports teams at Neumann serve together?

“The ability to share [in service] with your teammates and lean on each other, to be able to see that if you don’t know how to interact with someone, maybe someone else does, is so important,” said Lauren Sciocchetti, reflecting on her team’s experience with the Caring People Alliance. “You can support each other as a team, and I think the connections [our athletes] made will be longer-lasting.”

Team service may also help remind athletes that they play not just for a score, but for each other. Hebrews 10:24 encourages us to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together” for the power and solidarity afforded by community.

Jillian DeFina, in the middle of her year of service in Scranton, finds something special in service, too.

Neumann Field Hockey service
Neumann Field Hockey serving at Saint Francis of Assisi soup kitchen.

“Service is so important to me because it puts life into perspective,” Jill told me. “There is no better way to give thanks for [your] blessings than to set yourself and your comfort aside and be of service to our poor and marginalized brothers and sisters.”

At the Saint Francis of Assisi Soup Kitchen in Scranton, Jill runs the client choice food pantry and is in constant contact with individuals and families struggling to make ends meet. Living on a $100 monthly stipend, she strives to live in solidarity with those she serves, learning from their stories and experiences every day. Simply being present with them, she says, is a powerful form of service. But, she adds, processing her experiences with others adds to her growth.

“I have found that through service is when I become most vulnerable, and being able to share that side of myself by reflecting after a service event, or unpacking my hectic day with my [Jesuit Volunteer Corp] community allows us to grow together,” she said. “It’s the community element that allows me to take a step back and really look at how my work impacts the lives of so many people.”

Indeed, serving and reflecting together draws a clear parallel to sports accomplishments. Just as a team is greater than the sum of its parts, so too is service performed in community a powerful unifying force.

“‘We must meet one another doing good’,” reminded Megan Camp, Director of Service Leaning and Community Engagement at Neumann, quoting Pope Francis. “Service is such a vital part of Neumann that it is in our Mission, our Vision, and one of the University’s core values.”

Neumann student-athletes are keenly aware of their responsibility to uphold and extend these University values, acting as leaders who model for others the examples of reverence and excellence so highly regarded on campus. Certainly, they answer that calling when they support their teammates on the field, ice, or court. Community service gives them yet another way to do that, a way that achieves a goal beyond sport: bringing Neumann’s values out into the world in meaningful, tangible ways.

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About Jeffrey B. Eisenberg, M.A. // Coordinator, New Media, Communications and Events, ISSCD

At Neumann, Jeff works to build the Institute’s communication strategy with a focus on developing valuable resources relevant to student-athletes, coaches, administrators, and all groups the Institute strives to reach. He also serves as a co-chaplain of the Neumann Cross Country and Track & Field teams. Jeff holds a B.A. and M.A. in Strategic Communication from Villanova University.

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