Q&A: 2013-14 Rachael Townsend Award Winners

April 22, 2014

By Leah Howard | Courtesy MGoBlue.com

 

Rachael Townsend Winners image
From left: Joe ReynoldsChris HealdGabrielle GaetaAndrea JohnsonMackenzie EllisJordan MorganJeff Chu

A member of the Wolverine field hockey team (1992-95), Rachael [Geishardt] Townsend demonstrated a passion for serving the community, especially in the area of mentoring and coaching area youth, both during and after her time at Michigan. After Rachael passed away at the age of 29, the Rachael Townsend Community Service Award was created as a way to honor her life and the positive impact that she had throughout the community.

This year’s award winners were nominated by their teammates and peers and then selected by a diverse group of athletic staff and fellow student-athletes. Each recipient has made significant and selfless contributions to the community through their time, talent and dedication throughout the year. The award winners were invited to a private dinner at the home of Dave and Jan Brandon and will receive a Ginsberg Center Service Cord in honor of their community involvement to be worn at graduation.

JEFF CHU
Men’s Lacrosse
Senior
Berwyn, Pa.

What different community service organizations were you involved with this year?
“I was involved in a number of organizations throughout the year and in my couple of years here at Michigan. This past year as a senior, my team and I got involved in the Vs. Cancer Foundation, which an organization that supports the raising of awareness for those who are fighting childhood cancer. Their founder, Chase Jones, actually came to Ann Arbor and shared his story with our team, and that was a really cool experience for us. We were also involved with the Friends of Jaclyn Organization (FOJ) in which our team adopted a young child named Miles Root, a childhood brain tumor survivor. Sadly, he passed away this past spring. It was a really special experience for us to develop a relationship with him and get to know his family, especially his brothers, who come and hang out at practice and at games. We have continued to honor him with ‘MR’ stickers on our helmets, silicon wristbands that say ‘SuperMiles Strong,’ and his photos are displayed prominently throughout various team literature. We also got him a locker prior to one of our games and performed a ceremonial adoption ceremony, where we gave him a practice jersey.”

What kind of reception and feedback do you get from the people and organizations you work with?
“It has been a very grateful reception for all of us. They are honored to have this partnership with us, and they are honored that we as a team took the time for this relationship to develop. I know that Miles Root and his family felt very blessed and fortunate to be with us, and they said that we as a team really made an impact in their lives by offering a system of support for all of their boys. We wanted to give them a place to blow off some steam and take their minds off of what was going on.”

Why do you think it’s important for Michigan student-athletes to get involved in the Ann Arbor community?
“Student-athletes are given such a broad platform here at U-M. In a lot of cases, you can walk into Mott Children’s Hospital with that block M on your chest and bring a smile to a sick child’s face. With that given platform, I think it is a lot of responsibility that we can take on ourselves and share our privilege with other people. This university gives us all so much, and it is important that all of us recognize that and give back and try to help out the community whenever and wherever we can.”

What is a standout moment from your various community service activities this year?
“We decided as a team to shave our heads and raise awareness for childhood cancer. Lacrosse is typically a sport where long hair, or flow, is an accepted part of our lacrosse culture. For most of the team to step up together and shave their heads in recognition of childhood cancer and for Miles was really a neat experience. The day we shaved our heads, Miles and his family were on hand to witness. It was just an awesome experience since they seemed so touched that we went to such great lengths for their cause.”

Has your community service involvement at Michigan opened led you to new interests or career plans? Do you plan to continue your involvement after college?
“First off, it has allowed me to grow as an individual by giving me a different perspective on how I view things. I now recognize that I have been given a lot. I have also had to become our team’s director of community service, so that involved a lot of communication and organizational skills and allowed me to work on my professionalism with outside organizations while representing the University of Michigan.”

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MACKENZIE ELLIS
Field Hockey
Junior/Sophomore
Madison, N.J.

What different community service organizations were you involved with this year?
“I got really involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters this year. I worked with a third grader over at Carpenter Elementary every week for an hour. I really enjoy working with kids, so that has been a wonderful experience for me. I also did a lot of different stuff with my teammates, like Mott Children’s Hospital, clinics with local schools and clubs and Victors Day. This fall, I donated quite a bit of hair to Locks of Love. That was a lot of fun.”

Why do you think it’s important for Michigan student-athletes to get involved in the Ann Arbor community?
“We have so many opportunities and are so fortunate to be here at Michigan. It’s easy to lose sight of that. By going out and working with those who aren’t in the same situation, we gain perspective. It really teaches us to not take for granted what we’re given here.”

How does it feel to be honored as a recipient of the Rachael Townsend Award?
“It’s an incredible honor. It’s hard to find the right words to describe it. It’s assurance that I’m doing the right things and motivation that I can and should do more. You can always do more. I think I take a little extra pride in it, because Rachael Townsend was a field hockey player, and this is a very meaningful honor.”

What is a standout moment from your various community service activities this year?
“There was one particular day that I went out to Carpenter Elementary to see my little brother. I had to leave about 15 minutes early for a doctor’s appointment, and the look on his face when I told him was just so sad. When I told him I’d be back the next week, he perked right back up. That small moment told me that I am in fact making a difference in his life. It might not be a huge difference — an hour a week — but it’s still something.”

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GABRIELLE GAETA
Dance
Freshman
Ann Arbor, Mich.

What different community service organizations were you involved with this year?
“I started working with Michigan From the Heart, that’s the group that goes to Mott every Thursday night. I started doing that in the summer. Before that, the dance team hadn’t really participated in the program. I know one of the main volunteers, so I got in contact with him and he got the team set up, so I sort of started the dance team’s involvement with Michigan From the Heart. It was challenging to go during the year because we have practice on Thursday nights, but whenever we had an off night, I would try to go because it is so much fun. It’s an amazing experience to spend time with the kids and the families, just trying to brighten their day a little bit.

“I also went on Alternative Spring Break in Flint — that was an amazing experience as well. People didn’t quite get it when I told them I was doing ASB in Flint, because so many people go to the Dominican Republic, or places like that. But it was so cool to go somewhere nearby and see how much need there is there. That was a special week for me because I got to work in a charter school for underprivileged kids. There were a couple of sixth-grade boys, they won my heart. It was really sweet and really nice to work with those kids.”

What do you get out of your community service involvement?
“It’s great to see how doing something little, like just sitting down with a kid in Flint and helping them with math, something small like that can really provide encouragement for them. What I get out of doing community service is that affirmation that every little thing you do can make an impact on a person.”

Why do you think it’s important for Michigan student-athletes to get involved in the Ann Arbor community?
“I think it’s important because we have so many privileges being student-athletes, not to mention just being students at this amazing university, and we’ve been given so many opportunities, we need to use our time and talents. We have different and diverse skills, and we should use them to make a difference, even if it’s just playing catch with a kid at a school, we need to be involved.”

Has your community service involvement at Michigan opened led you to new interests or career plans? Do you plan to continue your involvement after college?
“Yes, actually it has. I realized how much I enjoy doing small service projects. I was required to do some community involvement in high school, but that was a requirement and it just involved filling up hours. So now, after going to Flint, it has made me more interested in urban issues and urban poverty issues. I’m hoping to fit in some classes with the urban change and social action minor, and I do want to learn more about urban development. So my service has shaped my interests.”

What advice would you give incoming students about community service?
“I would say that despite how busy you are, even if you can just give an hour here or there — even once a month — it’s good for you to step away from your work and focus on something other than yourself. Focus on others and help — even if it’s just an hour, fit it in. It is rewarding and a great way to give back, especially considering how much we have at this great university.”

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CHRIS HEALD
Wrestling
Senior/Junior
West Bloomfield, Mich.

What different community service organizations were you involved with this year?
“I helped organize a lot of our team’s community service activities. I frequently visited Mott on Thursday evenings, helped with the Army-Navy wheelchair basketball event at Crisler and Block Out Bullying and outside of athletics, was involved with K-Grams, which is a pen pal program pairing up kids in the dorms and local elementary schools. We also participated in that as a wrestling team. I was also our team’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) representative, and within SAAC, I was involved with the community service portion. If any opportunities come up during the month, we got the word out among student-athletes to promote it.”

What kind of reception and feedback do you get from the people and organizations you work with?
“I think it means a lot to them that you put in the extra time and effort to make them feel important. I think people take notice of that. I hear so much praise from parents of our various K-Grams pen pals, and those kids get so excited for their letters. It’s just really heartwarming.”

What is a standout moment from your various community service activities this year?
“There was one night at Mott Children’s Hospital that I had an opportunity to visit a young wrestling fan. Neither he nor his parents knew I was coming, but when I arrived, he knew all my stats and what had happened in the previous dual against Michigan State. He was so excited that a wrestler came to visit him. It really made me realize how much these kids look up to us and how impactful our visits can be.”

What do you get out of your community service involvement?
“I think my involvement with these organizations has changed me and made me who I am now. It forces you to think beyond yourself. It’s important to make time and care for others, and I think in doing so, you encourage the people around you to do the same.”

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ANDREA JOHNSON
Rowing
Senior
Clarkston, Mich.

What different community service organizations were you involved with this year?
“This year I’ve been volunteering with Michigan From the Heart at Mott Children’s Hospital and helped out at the Polar Plunge benefiting Special Olympics and Victors Day. I’ve also volunteered at the VA Hospital and Food Gatherers, among others. A lot of the community service that I’ve done has been with teammates, which has made volunteering all the more meaningful. Community service has definitely brought our team together in many instances, which is awesome to see and be a part of.”

What kind of reception and feedback do you get from the people and organizations you work with?
“Feedback is always positive. A lot of organizations are just so thankful to have volunteers to help with their work, and their reaction is always one of appreciation. I think the best feedback I have ever gotten, and something that will always stick with me, is when a parent at Mott came running after us as we left her son’s room. She said, ‘You have no idea what that meant to us. That was the first time he’s smiled all day.’ It’s moments like that when you know you’ve brightened someone’s day, put a smile on their face… that’s why I do it.”

Why do you think it’s important for Michigan student-athletes to get involved in the Ann Arbor community?
“The Michigan and Ann Arbor community give us so much. I think that it’s really important to give back as a ‘thank you’ for all of the support they give us in our athletic and academic careers. Additionally, as student-athletes, we have a really big platform that we can leverage. Community members often look up to student-athletes. Getting involved in any way in the community can potentially help pave the way for other people to get involved and volunteer too.

What advice would you give incoming students about community service?
“Your actions matter! What you do in the community can speak just as loud or even louder than what you do on the water, on the field, or on the court. Getting involved in the community not only puts smiles on other people’s faces, but grounds you and helps you to appreciate everything around you, even in the midst of grueling training and competition.”

How does it feel to be honored as a recipient of the Rachael Townsend Award?
“Giving back to the community is not something that I do with the hope of being recognized, but it is a huge honor to be a recipient of the Rachael Townsend Award. Community service is a huge part of my life and I’m really passionate about it, and it is really awesome that the athletic department values it as well.”

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JORDAN MORGAN
Men’s Basketball
Graduate Student
Detroit, Mich.

What different community service organizations were you involved this year?
“This year I was involved with visiting Mott Children’s Hospital. I made several visits there. Over this past summer, I also took a mission trip to Africa with Athletes in Action. While over there, I hosted clinics for both coaches and high school boys and girls. We visited an orphanage, brought down some toys and shoes and spent time with them over there. That was a great experience. I also have been a substitute for Meals on Wheels, filling in and delivering lunches when I can. I spent time at Mitchell Elementary School with a group of kids over there, just hanging out, talking and eating lunch with them. I just really enjoy spending time with the kids and being able to help and talk with them. It’s nothing special; it’s just quality time with the kids. That’s special to me.”

What do you get out of your community service involvement?
“You just realize how much of an impact you can have on people’s lives. You think you’re just playing your sport and sometimes it feels so isolated, but it’s not. You mean a lot to these people and this community. So when they see somebody that is a successful student-athlete, regardless of what sport or where they are from, and they are taking the time out to show that they care about others, it means a lot to people, especially those people that need it, in the hospitals, the people I deliver meals for and the children. When they can see that you care, it makes them have a different outlook on life as well.”

 Why do you think it’s important for Michigan student-athletes to get involved in the Ann Arbor community?
“You never know what impact you will have. We are all affected by certain experiences we have and by certain influences people have on us. You never know when your actions might change somebody’s life. For me to know that is very special. I know that I am extremely blessed to be here. I’ve faced a lot of adversity my entire life, and so I feel like I’ve made it here. I’m blessed to be here at Michigan, and if I can give somebody encouragement that can make them achieve more than they could ever believe, then that makes everything worth it.”

How does it feel to be acknowledged with the Rachel Townsend award?
“It’s humbling. She was such an influence in this athletic community and promoting community service. Having a special relationship with Brian Townsend, I am very humbled to be able to represent her and him as well with this award.”

 Has your community service involvement at Michigan opened led you to new interests or career plans? Do you plan to continue your involvement after college?
“I definitely will. Hopefully I can start to develop my own organizations, but no matter where life takes me, it’s always important to give back. My vision is to develop a program with young children, especially in urban communities, and to help show them the types of things that they can accomplish and the things they can do in this world. Too often, these young kids don’t really see a future for themselves and don’t see a reason for continuing education. That is why the graduation rate, especially where I’m from in the city of Detroit, is so low. They don’t see themselves being able to go to college and actually get something out of their education. If I could give just a few kids something to latch onto that can help motivate them to finish school and believe in themselves, then I feel like I have really accomplished something.”

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JOE REYNOLDS
Football
Fifth-Year Senior
Rochester, Mich.

What different community service organizations were you involved with this year?
“The Michigan From the Heart program, where every Thursday night student-athletes visit patients at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.”

What kind of reception and feedback do you get from the people and organizations you work with?
“The people are always so appreciative. We often times visit kids who have their lives flipped upside down by being diagnosed with cancer and other daunting diseases. If anything, our visits help them to get their mind off their problems. It’s all about loving others.”

What do you get out of your community service involvement?
“I meet incredible people, and I serve Jesus Christ. I think it’s what we have been called to do. We have been blessed and we should bless others.”

Has your community service involvement at Michigan opened led you to new interests or career plans? Do you plan to continue your involvement after college?
“I just know I need to continue serving others and honoring Jesus.”



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