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Trio of Michigan student-athletes gives back in Ecuador building project

By Stephen Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published June 28, 2011

Two months after his season ended in overtime of the NCAA national championship game in St. Paul, Minn., Shawn Hunwick was back in net.

But this time the senior goaltender for the Michigan hockey team wasn’t on skates, on ice or even playing hockey. Hunwick was between the pipes of a rusty soccer goal, facing an onrushing group of schoolchildren in Ecuador — where soccer is king.

Michigan student-athletes Hunwick, Meagan Cobb (water polo) and Holly Hein (women’s soccer) partnered with Student-Athletes Leading Social Change to take a 10-day trip to build one of the schools the organization funded in Chismaute, Ecuador.

The trio joined a cast of 15 other students from Illinois, Lehigh, North Carolina, Central Michigan and Iowa State.

Michigan aligned with SALSC as one of three charities that split the proceeds from the annual Mock Rock fundraiser in February.

Combined with the other SALSC chapters on the trip, the group raised $70,000 to construct a school for the children of Chismaute. Mock Rock and Michigan alone raised $18,000 in support of SALSC.

But the money didn’t lay the groundwork for the school — the student-athletes did.

“It’s pretty amazing, because if you get a bunch of student-athletes down working on something ... we’re all competitive so they had to force us to take breaks,” Hunwick said. “We didn’t want to stop working.”

The group dug trenches for the foundation for the school, filled it with rocks, made cement and bricks, and completed the foundation of one of the schools SALSC funded. The money raised for the trip helped to build the school, help with water, and donate to a girls’ club and a safe sports facility in the village.

“It was great to get our hands dirty and really work like the members of the Chismaute community,” Cobb said. “We were side-by-side with them doing heavy lifting with rocks and wheelbarrows and shovels.

“All community service is gratifying, but this was special.”

For the student-athletes — a group that Desmond Howard recently blasted for having “a sense of entitlement” — the trip wasn’t a vacation in five-star hotels, it was marked with plenty of sacrifice.

“It’s a completely different lifestyle,” Hunwick said. “We were in the Andes Mountains down in the Chimbaroza province, I think they said families were living off $2.50 American per day. But these people were genuinely happy every day we met them — the kids were ecstatic to see us.

“There’s no right of entitlement down there, they were just genuinely happy to interact with us and play with us. It’s a testament to how people can live an alternate life from what we’re used to and still be very content. These people in South America, they don’t know that we’re on our cell phones and doing all this stuff up here, and they’re happy with the life they have.”

It wasn’t all work. The students spent two days in Quito, the capitol of Ecuador, to jumpstart the trip and took a visit to the nearby equator.

And then there was fútbol.

Children throughout the village of Chismaute visited the building project and brought along their trusty soccer balls to give the student-athletes a break from laying the foundation of the school. The natives of the small village spoke a mixture of Spanish and Quechua, a dialect cluster spoken primarily in the Andes region.

“A couple people on my team were in our group and then there were a bunch of little (Ecuadorian) boys,” Hein said. “We were playing and the little boys would pass us the ball and then yell, ‘gringo’ or ‘gringa,’ because they wanted the ball back.”

Hein was at home on the dusty pitch at base of Mount Chimbaroza, Ecuador’s highest volcano.

But somebody felt left out.

“Hockey never really came up,” Hunwick said with a laugh. “I think the closest we came was when I was playing goalie in soccer. They know soccer and they know volleyball, but hockey’s not really the hotbed.

“Everyone brought down different kinds of balls, but I figured they wouldn’t have any use for a hockey puck.”

Cobb, who leads Michigan’s SALSC chapter alongside Haley Kopmeyer, the goaltender of the women’s soccer team, said the group expects to send more willing students across the globe next summer.

“As student-athletes, and as students at Michigan in general, we are so blessed to have everything that we have — to turn on the sink and have running water, to be able to afford education. In these communities, kids have to walk to school, have to pay for school, and some of them can’t afford to go.”

Added Hein: “To be able to put the foundation down for a school that’s going to last so many years, it affects not only the kids we were playing with, but their kids and maybe even their kids’ kids.”

And the project certainly painted a fresh coat onto the image of college athletes, which has looked rather weather-beaten lately.

“It’s great for student-athletes to give back, because we’re very fortunate, and for us three it was an honor to represent the University of Michigan in South America,” Hunwick said.

“We’re spreading the Michigan name and giving back in the world.”