Helping Fill Santa's Sleigh

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Rowan athletes shop to make holidays brighter for community kids.
Perched atop the shoulders of Rowan University sophomore pitcher Carlos Ruiz, nine-year-old Raheem Mitchell had a game plan. And he wasn’t shy about sharing it.

“I’m just going to move his head wherever I want him to go,” Raheem, of Glassboro, said with confidence.

“Yeah,” Ruiz, a Law & Justice major from South Plainfield, said good-naturedly. “He’s directing me.”

The pair had just met an hour before. But they were already acting like veteran teammates, navigating the bustling--and expansive—Walmart Superstore in Turnersville to buy holiday presents for Raheem’s family.

As part of the 10th annual Gifts for Giving event, sponsored by An Opportunity’s Knockin' (AOK), a Turnersville non-profit community group, 45 Rowan student athletes volunteered Dec. 9 to help underprivileged children from Glassboro, Bridgeton, Winslow and Williamstown shop for family members.

It was the third year that members of the Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC) volunteered to help make the holidays a little brighter for others. Altogether, the athletes shopped with 77 community kids.

“When we ask for volunteers for this in our SAAC meetings, everyone’s hand goes up,” said softball player Nicole Escudero, a co-coordinator of SAAC, a junior Health & Exercise Science (HES) major from Marlton.

“It’s a really fun day. It’s just so great with the children and to get the student athletes involved with the community."

Each year, AOK teams up with community sponsors to raise funds so that children can buy gifts for their loved ones. The day began with a pizza party, where the athletes got to know the children and reviewed their lists with them. Then, the volunteers and children boarded buses to Walmart.

Once they arrived, store managers opened special lines for the shoppers, making checkout infinitely easier. Each child received a special goodie bag from the store. And, in a show of school spirit, Rowan student Jeana Wengert, a senior HES major who works part time at the Walmart, volunteered to serve as a cashier for the group.

Wrapping it up
After shopping, the kids and athletes returned to Rowan’s Education Hall, where they wrapped nearly 400 presents, according to Pete Mauro, co-founder of AOK.

Among the gifts – more than $5,000 worth--were perfume and cologne for grandparents, candles for moms, books and toys for siblings, and NFL and NHL gear for dads. All of the children also received a $20 Toys R Us gift card for themselves.

Softball’s Samantha Liedtka of Hamilton Square, a junior elementary education and history major, said the event is extra special because it brings together athletes from across the university.

“It’s one of the community projects I prefer to do,” said Liedtka. “It’s nice to give back as part of the larger athletic community.”

Mauro isn’t surprised by Liedtka’s dedication. The event, after all, is all about giving, something the Rowan athletes do with boundless energy—and sincerity, he said.

“The athletes have taken Gifts for Giving to a new level of fun,” Mauro said. “They jump right in and make it entertaining and memorable for the kids.”

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