Athlete altruism 

In the sports world, a lot of organizations volunteer their time, showing up long enough to smile for the camera and sign an autograph or two.

In the world of University of Oklahoma women’s basketball coach Sherri Coale, her players roll up their sleeves, block out their schedules and get to work.

Now in her 15th season, Coale said her players know before they even step on campus that giving back is a requirement.

“It’s important for student-athletes to be involved in their community and understand how fortunate they are and the privileges they have been given,” she said. “I don’t believe it is optional to give back. It is everyone’s responsibility.”

For that mentality, Coale was recently nominated to receive the inaugural 2010 United Nations NGO Positive Peace Award, honoring celebrities, coaches, businesses, communities and schools for positive contributions to society.

Coale said her program is more than just about a game.

“I want it to be my legacy at OU that we produced people who made a difference in the world,” she previously told Oklahoma Gazette. “It’s not just about champions, or only about how we played the game.”

To that end, each of her players participate in the Sooner Big Sis Program, which pairs them with local elementary schools. Each year, the team also focuses on a local nonprofit.

In the past, the Sooners have worked with Food and Shelter for Friends, the Mary Abbott Children’s House, Habitat for Humanity and the Norman Women’s Resource Center and Battered Women’s Shelter, to name a few.

Ann Way, executive director of the Mary Abbott Children’s House, which serves children who have been victimized by sexual or physical abuse, said members of the OU women’s basketball team have served as child advocates. It’s a serious sounding title for the not-so-serious job of playtime with the children.

It might seem as simple as playing a board game or running around outside, but in reality, the time spent with the kids is often the calm right before or just after the storm.

“They play with the child prior to the time the child is interviewed and they play with the child after the interview, while law enforcement or Department of Human Services speaks with the protective parents,” Way said.

Kathe Cantrell, forensic interviewer at the Abbott House, said she remembers the visits from the team vividly for the simple fact that they were so unassuming.

She said yard work and painting was always done as a team, while a few individual players went through the training so they could work one-onone with children.

“I thought they were amazing.

What struck me the most was there were no egos coming in, especially when they were playing with the kiddos was when I noticed it the most,” Cantrell said. “It was like, ‘Hi, I’m Whitney,’ not ‘Hi, I’m Whitney Hand, OU basketball player.’” Cantrell said most people never knew the volunteers were OU athletes. Occasionally, a parent would recognize a face.

“They were just there for the kids,” she said. “For an athletic team, as busy as they are with practice and classes and travel, it was really wonderful to have them here.”

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