Teaming up in holiday spirit, Yale athletes bring smiles to faces of local children

With Christmas wish lists in hand, Yale hockey players Hanna Åström, Rachelle Graham, and Ali Austin went out in search of gifts that would bring some joy to a little boy in kindergarten and a girl in second grade.

The children — both students at the Augusta Lewis Troup School in New Haven — had asked for some essentials like a winter coat, a bed comforter, and some towels, but the Yale athletes had the most fun selecting some surprises for the children, among them Spiderman figurines, a remote control car, and a doll of one of the characters in the popular Disney movie “Frozen.”

The women’s ice hockey squad was just one of the Bulldogs teams to take part in the annual Holiday Gift Giving Initiative, which is among the ways that student-athletes engage in service through the Athletic Department’s Thomas W. Ford ’42 Community Outreach Program. This year, 25 of Yale’s 33 varsity teams participated in the holiday gift drive. The athletes made monetary donations to the drive, and purchased and wrapped presents with teammates. All of the gifts were delivered by school bus to the Troup School on Dec. 9.

“Yale’s athletic teams bought gifts for over 30 Troup students whose families were not in the best situation to purchase holiday presents this year,” says ice hockey player Lynn Kennedy ’16, who coordinated this year’s drive with baseball player Alec Hoeschel ’17. “Each team pools individual donations from its athletes — which were around $5 to $8 — to buy gifts for a Troup student. The school supplied wish lists for the students. Each team was then matched with one or two children, with some teams offering to contribute to the gift-giving for one or two extra to make up for the few teams that didn’t participate this year.”

Kennedy and Hoeschel are the student representatives on the Yale Athletics Community Outreach Committee and worked closely during the drive with associate athletic director Jeremy Makins and Sam Burrell, a former Yale football and baseball coach who is now a community outreach consultant for the Athletics Department. Burrell began the Holiday Gift Giving Initiative nearly a decade ago as a way to engage the Yale athletes in their local community while simultaneously inspiring some teamwork among the athletes off of the fields, courts, and other competitive venues.

“I had a great time [shopping],” says Åström. “It is a lot more fun to buy presents for someone when you know that they will appreciate it. It really puts your own life in perspective. The two kids who we were shopping for mostly just had essentials such as bed sheets, toiletries, socks, and winter coats on their wish lists. It makes you realize how fortunate you are to be able to take all those things for granted.”

Austin describes the experience of seeing such basic necessities on children’s holiday wish lists as “humbling,” and adds, “It was really a great feeling to know we were helping to make two little kids’ Christmas a little better. … Throughout the whole experience, imagining how they'd feel seeing these presents and unwrapping them on Christmas morning was really the best part, and made it special for us.”

Kennedy noted that toys associated with the movie “Frozen” were among the most popular toys on the wish lists of young New Haven girls, while boys asked for basketballs, footballs, remote cars, and other toys. Necessities such as coats, hats, and scarves were also on many of the children’s lists.

The drive is a way that all of the athletes can be engaged in a common effort, notes Kennedy, whether by making a donation, or helping with the shopping, or wrapping the gifts. All of the donations are voluntary.

“We don’t want to put undue stress on any of our players [who might have difficulty contributing] to the drive,” says Kennedy. “For our team, I put up the money for the shopping, and my teammates reimbursed me.”

The holiday drive is just one outlet for community service that is popular with Yale Bulldogs athletes. Many of them also participate in Bulldog Buddies, a mentoring program at the Vincent Mauro Elementary School; make school and hospital visits to engage with local children; or participate in Big Brothers/Big Sisters, among other community endeavors.

“I feel strongly that Yale should give back to its local community,” says Kennedy. “For students, it’s nice to realize there is a whole world beyond our campus. During the holiday season, it’s not difficult for teams to pool together and get in the spirit of giving. We all like knowing that we’ve done something that will hopefully brighten someone’s day.”