After soundly defeating No. 12-ranked University of Texas on the road Saturday (score: 62-42), the No. 14-ranked UCLA women’s basketball team deserved to come home and relax a bit before finals. But they wouldn’t hear of it; at least, not until they had completed one more important mission.
Kacy Swain, a forward on the UCLA women's basketball team, is greeted by student leaders at Lifeline Education Charter School in Compton.
On Monday, the players drove out to Lifeline Education Charter School in Compton, Calif., to meet with 159 middle school students and to present them with an early Christmas present: brand-new athletic shoes and socks.
To collect the shoes, the Bruins partnered with Samaritan’s Feet — a nonprofit, humanitarian-aid organization with more than 70,000 volunteers whose goal is to help the nearly 300 million needy people who go without shoes each day. The UCLA women’s basketball team held a shoe drive during the Dec. 2 game against Loyola Marymount University, offering fans free admission to the game if they brought a pair of new athletic shoes. Fans could also donate in three other ways: by donating cash at the door or online at the Samaritan’s Feet website or by texting a $10 donation to the nonprofit group. Nike took care of the socks by donating 200 pairs.
Fans came through with approximately 125 pairs of shoes, and the remaining 75 were donated by Jrue Holiday, former UCLA basketball player and current point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers. He is also the big brother of current UCLA freshman Lauren Holiday, a guard on the UCLA women’s team.
The donated shoes, ready to be distributed to the middle-school students.
On Monday, the Bruin women arrived at Lifeline Education Charter School to the sound of cheers; several student leaders placed colorful leis around the players’ necks. After a warm welcome by Principal Jeanette Andrews and a few words from UCLA’s head women’s coach Cori Close, the Bruins quickly got to work.
In one of the school’s assembly rooms, chairs had been set up in pairs — one chair facing the other — with a bucket of warm, sudsy water ready at each station. When each child sat down, he or she was greeted by a UCLA player or coach, who then washed and dried the child’s feet. Then the Bruins helped the children put on new socks and shoes. (The feet-washing is per Samaritan’s policy, intended to demonstrate an act of servant-leadership and humility.)
UCLA players and coaches also served as runners, taking each child’s name and returning with socks and a pair of new shoes in the correct size. Other team members constantly refilled the feet-washing buckets. They were familiar with the routine because they had participated in a similar project last year in Philadelphia, helping Jrue Holiday deliver shoes to a community center in the old neighborhood of Markel Walker, currently a senior on the UCLA women’s team.
The players chat with the kids as they get their feet washed.
Coach Close has had ties with Samaritan’s Feet for several years, having done shoe distributions with some of her past teams. "It’s really a privilege to continue this partnership and to expose our players to the joy of being able to provide this for somebody else, and to be able to touch their lives and spread love to these kids," she said.
The middle-schoolers were thrilled, especially Anaje Johnson, president of the school’s leadership group and a self-proclaimed lifelong Bruin fan. "It’s a blessing that we could get shoes, and it’s a great opportunity to get shoes from UCLA!" the eighth-grader said. "Everyone loves their shoes. They’re excited, and I’m happy that they’re excited about this."
After all the shoes were given away, several of the UCLA players, including Lauren Holiday, joined the youngsters on the playground for some impromptu dancing and pick-up basketball.
"I think my favorite part was making the kids happy," Holiday said. "Because I know what it feels like to have a bad day, and for kids who can’t necessarily have everything that they want, I think this one day really made a difference in their lives."
Rhema Gardner, a forward/guard on the UCLA women's team, poses with her new friends.
"Samaritan’s Feet has become something very special to our program because it’s very humbling," added senior guard Mariah Williams. "We get so much gear, and we have a lot of resources given to our program. Just to come down here and give back and share this experience with the kids is really fun. They all look up to us, and it’s really fun to see that."
With a trace of awe in her voice, eighth-grader Hallimah Felton confirmed that. "We are really thankful. We’re grateful because some kids cannot afford shoes … It’s like a miracle."