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Minnesota Players find Joy in Outreach Effort


MinnesotaExtremeMakeoverVolunteering. For many young adults, it’s just another obligation—the kind of thing you do to boost your résumé, put on a graduate school application, to fulfill an athletic program requirement.
But not for the student-athletes on the University of Minnesota’s baseball team. For them, it’s about giving back.

Especially for Kurt Schlangen and Matt Puhl, two of the team’s most dedicated volunteers.

“I always thought it was a good thing to give back to those less fortunate and to help out people,” says Schlangen. “I’ve had it pretty easy throughout my life. My family’s been great. People that don’t have that . . . I just want to give them an opportunity to have that for a day.”

Schlangen, a redshirt sophomore, does much of his volunteering with Puhl, a sophomore second baseman who started 54 games for the Gophers in 2010, who he has roomed with since freshman year. Although Schlangen says the two aren’t competitive, he does admit that he enjoys giving back with his best friend. And Puhl feels the same way.

“I just feel like there’s a lot of kids out there that are looking up to us as athletes that don’t have the opportunity to do what we do,” says Puhl, also a redshirt sophomore. “Some guys don’t believe in it, but me and [Schlangen] . . . believe it’s fun. It’s not just fun for them, but it’s fun for us too. We like getting out there in different organizations and just doing what we can to help out.”

For both Schlangen and Puhl, giving back started at a young age. While Puhl worked a few small volunteer events during high school, Schlangen was a member of his high school’s National Honor Society, which involved participating in food shelves, toy drives, and other such activities, all of which benefitted people in need. But that was just the beginning, especially for Puhl.

“Once I got [to the University], I started to receive [Assistant Director of Student-Athlete Welfare Anissa Lightner’s] weekly email with all the different opportunities we could do,” Puhl said. “That’s when I started expanding my horizons and looking for other programs.”

Schlangen and Puhl have especially enjoyed their work with HopeKids, a nonprofit organization that provides ongoing activities to children with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Through the University of Minnesota and Lightner, the two players have volunteered at a number of HopeKids events, including the Sept. 12 HopeDay Festival hosted by the University. For Schlangen, the experience is always humbling.

“You see some of the battles that the kids are going through at such a young age,” Schlangen says. “It really hits you that you’ve been lucky for so long to be healthy and to have such a great family. To see kids like that, it just kind of hits you, and makes you feel good that you can give up your time to give them a day that [is] special for them.”

So good, in fact, that the two players have sought volunteer opportunities on their own, beyond what their team and University expects of them. To head coach John Anderson, there is no greater charity.

“The unique thing about [Schlangen and Puhl] is that they’ve done some things without being asked,” said Anderson, who is entering his 30th season as head coach. “That to me is the best thing you can do.”

Perhaps the most notable of Schlangen and Puhl’s extracurricular efforts occurred during winter break of their sophomore year, when the two players visited St. Louis Park Jr. High School to educate students on the importance of schooling. They also helped students with disabilities complete homework and reading assignments.

“We were on break anyways,” says Puhl, “so why not take some time to do some volunteering?”

Of course, it’s always easier when you have a friend by your side.

“We try to do the events together, because we feel more comfortable doing it that way,” Puhl says. “We’re pretty close on the field, [and] off the field.”

But neither player has been afraid to branch out and do his own volunteer work. During a visit to New York this summer, Schlangen heard from a teammate that the ABC reality television series, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” was undertaking a house-building project in the area. Schlangen immediately saw it as a golden opportunity.

“We just showed up on site,” Schlangen said of he and his teammates. “We started taking scrap materials to the dumpster, we were planting shrub, laying sod, painting the walls in the house, and just all kinds of odds and ends. It was pretty special.”

Schlangen and his teammates helped renovate the house of a struggling family with six children who suffered from Down Syndrome. It was an amazing experience for the volunteers—but even more so for the Lutz family, whose story was shared with the world on Oct. 3, when “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” aired on ABC.

Puhl has taken his fair share of initiative as well. He has participated several times in “Take A Youth Hunting Day,” a fall event in which experienced hunters go hunting with adolescents who are either fatherless, or don’t have the opportunity to enjoy outdoor activities. A lifelong hunter, Puhl calls the event one of his favorite volunteer efforts so far.

“I love to hunt,” Puhl says. “That’s where I spend most of my free time, so being able to take a kid out and give him the opportunity to [hunt] is kind of cool. Being able to do something I enjoy too makes it even better.”

Certainly, volunteering isn’t all work and no fun. But in the end, it’s still about giving back.

“I don’t like to get notoriety for it,” says Anderson, “or I don’t like to have cameras or people around when we do it, because I don’t think that’s why you should do it. I think you should do it because you care about others and want to give back, not because you want people to give you credit.”

And it goes without saying that Schlangen and Puhl feel the same way.

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