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Wrestling falls 30-9 against Lehigh 133 - No. 14 Matt Fisk (Lehigh) def. Bryan Ortenzio (Penn), 4-3; Lehigh leads 7-0 Credit: Pete Lodato

In an era when professional athletes’ community service mostly seems to be court-ordered, many of Penn’s student-athletes have taken matters into their own hands.

For women’s soccer team captain Kristin Kaiser, helping constituents of the surrounding area was a no-brainer.

“We all feel so fortunate,” the junior explained. “And we just want to give back to the community.”

But women’s soccer isn’t the only team to catch the service bug. It has become endemic.

Penn wrestling coach Rob Eiter and 165-pound junior Gabriel Burak contacted the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, an organization that pairs young children battling brain cancer with different collegiate and high school sports teams throughout the country.

“We wanted to get the team involved in the community,” Eiter said, “but more than just picking up garbage in a neighborhood or something.”

Enter 9-year-old Holden Haws, who the team formally ‘adopted’ before its dual match against No. 7 Lehigh this past Sunday. He was accompanied to the Palestra by his parents Bruce and Kristin, his brother Parke and his grandmother.

Haws was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2008 and underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment up until the end of last year.

He is currently conducting follow-up appointments at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Although Haws hails from Ephrata, Pa., which is about 70 miles west of Penn, Eiter and the Quakers hope that he will become very close with the team — attending tournaments as a guest of honor and receiving notes of support from players.

“This isn’t something that we are doing just this year,” Eiter said. “Holden … he’s part of the team now … and hopefully it’s for years and years to come.”

The coach credits the Penn wrestling team’s strong alumni support with pushing the squad in the right direction.

While Eiter and the grapplers are focusing on one brave boy, the women’s soccer team is taking a broader view.

Partnering with Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and the Penn Hillel soup kitchen, Kaiser and her teammates have forged relationships with children and adults all over Philadelphia’s public schools.

While women’s soccer coach Darren Ambrose has been involved with local philanthropic organizations during his entire tenure at Penn, the players started their own community service campaign last year — they netted 227 service hours in just one year.

“In the beginning [community service] was a really big part of the women’s soccer program,” Kaiser said. “It was Darren’s idea to really get back involved.”

As Big Sisters to young female students, players like Kaiser hope to provide a strong adult figure to children who are often without a stable home. The players take time from their busy schedules to eat lunch with students at local schools.

“It’s just nice that you can be a role-model for somebody in case they don’t have one back home,” Kaiser said.

The team is also using its soccer skills as a basis for service through working with the Starfinder Foundation, which provides both academic and soccer tutoring to underprivileged youths from inner-city Philadelphia.

“A lot of the girls have been involved in not only the community service aspect but also helping out with [Starfinder] camps,” said Kaiser, who participated in several camps last summer.

Despite a busy practice schedule, Kaiser is trying to find a way to bring the entire team together to participate with Starfinder this spring.

She has become the team’s de-facto philanthropy chair after assistant coach Abby Shiffler left for a new assistant coaching position at Massachusetts-Amherst.

“I’ve been titled the leader,” Kaiser said. “With the role of captain, [the task of leading community service] has fallen on my shoulders.”

But, Kaiser is quick to point out, a different team member heads the team’s effort with each of the charities it helps.

And beyond just involving her teammates, Kaiser is looking to spread the community service bug throughout the entire Penn athletics community.

It seems that she won’t have much difficulty. In addition to wrestling’s outreach, the men and women’s basketball teams recently collected over 350 pairs of shoes to donate to earthquake victims in Haiti.

The volleyball team did its part this fall by hosting a “Dig Pink” match Oct. 24 against Columbia. The match, part of a nationwide program, raised money and awareness for breast cancer research.

But Kaiser is hoping to further expand student athletes’ commitment to the community at large.

“It would be really fun if we could get an inter-department competition going,” she said.

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