By Megan Morketter, Go.Heels.com
Spirits were high as UNC student-athletes made their annual visit Oct. 5 to the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospitals.
Student-athletes ranging from football players to cross country runners have been volunteering to spend time with patients since 2007. It was then that North Carolina's Touchstone Energy cooperatives, a partner with the Jaycee Burn Center and the university's sports marketing department, proposed the visit to increase awareness for one of the nation's best burn centers.
Lindsey Listrom, community relations specialist for Touchstone Energy, explained that the athletes' visit each year is video recorded and the footage is used to highlight the burn center during a UNC football game. But as the Tar Heels met a handful of patients from different backgrounds, ages and conditions, they were not focused on the cameras. Rather, they were hoping to provide inspiration and motivation to patients who understand the dedication and commitment it takes to overcome challenges.
"They know that they are here to be ambassadors. They know that the way that they present themselves has a huge impact," said Dr. Bruce Cairns, Director of the Jaycee Burn Center and former student-athlete at Johns Hopkins. "Every time we have the student-athletes come they're always interested in the patients and their families, what else they can do. It's clear that they're able to see the larger picture."
Already confident in the impact they can make in a game, meet or match, the athletes turned their attention to the impressions they could leave off the field. Presenting patients with t-shirts, posters and footballs, the players emitted a sense of pride that spread from room to room.
Senior offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper noted how enjoyable it was to touch lives and see what the visit meant to the patients. Brennan Williams, another senior lineman, added, "We feel like it's really important to be able to give back and make other people's day."
Also part of the visit was Tristine Johnson, a junior track and field athlete who was at the unit for the first time. She hoped to inspire in patients the same drive to meet a challenge that her and her teammates possess. "It means the world to be able to be here and encourage somebody because I know when we're out there on the track, we really draw from encouragement on one another," she said. "We're constantly saying, 'You can do this,' and picking another person up."
The recurring theme of the visit was one of lasting impressions. Throughout the Tar Heels' stay, medical staff reiterated the increased motivation they see in their patients after meeting the athletes.
"The patients may take a few more steps during physical therapy, they might eat a little more. Their (the athletes') presence here lasts so much longer... just look in the room, look at that," Dr. Cairns said pointing to a mother beginning to decorate her 15-year-old son's hospital room with a football helmet and poster gifted to the boy by Cooper, Williams, Johnson and company.
"I know that there are people who are thinking about Carolina athletics and what it really stands for," Dr. Caims said. "Well I wish they could see this, then they would know."