Olivia Hassler and Bobby Bittner are South Carolina's nominees for the 2016 Brad Davis Southeastern Conference Community Service Leaders of the Year, and giving back is just part of their nature. The prestigious award recognizes student-athletes for their commitment to service, leadership qualities, academic achievement and athletic participation, but Hassler and Bittner are happy to do their part without being formally recognized.
"It's nice to be recognized for being prominent in your community and that people recognize that you take giving back very seriously," said Hassler, a senior on the track and field team, who, in addition to being among the leading South Carolina student-athletes with 240 community service hours last semester alone, has made it her mission to spread awareness about domestic violence as a result of her own experiences.
"It's quite an honor, and I didn't expect it," said Bittner, a senior on the swimming and diving team. "I love doing community service, and I definitely do not do it to get an award. It's not about the reward. It's just about doing what I like to do. I just serve others because it's what I'm supposed to do. It's who I am. It makes me feel good inside to know that someone else is benefitting from something I'm doing."
The award is named for former SEC associate commissioner Brad Davis, who succumbed to cancer on March 2, 2006. He had been a member of the SEC staff since 1988.
"I love the fact that this is award that recognizes student-athletes specifically for their community outreach efforts," said Erica Nelson, South Carolina's Director of Life Skills and Community Outreach. "This award recognizes their commitment to the community. That's important to us as an institution. So I'm happy that it is recognized like this across the conference."
Each of the 14 schools in the league nominates a male and female student-athlete, and those nominees receive a $5,000 post graduate scholarship. One male and one female winner will be selected from that group by a committee of Faculty Athletics Representatives from the SEC's universities and will receive a $10,000 post-graduate scholarship, provided by the SEC.
"Olivia is special," Nelson said. "Much has been written and said about her commitment to empowering men and women about domestic abuse. Beyond that, she is someone who is among the first phone calls I make when I need someone to go out and volunteer. Whether it is visiting a hospital or helping with any service event at places like Harvest Hope Food Bank or Ronald McDonald House, where she is on a first-name basis with the staff, she just always gets it.
"Bobby is someone who seeks no glory in his community service efforts. He would do it without any award being involved. He really enjoys giving back. He has been a mentor at Catawba Trail Elementary School, and he is someone who really loves being in a position to give back to the community. He has also helped me get a lot of other members of his team involved."
Both Bittner and Hassler have been named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll in their respective careers. Hassler was also the 2015 Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award recipient, which is given to student-athletes who have overcome great personal, academic, or emotional odds to achieve academic success while also competing in college athletics, after sharing her story as a victim of domestic abuse.
"I'm still doing speaking engagements and speaking to people about it," Hassler said. "A lot of people know me for that story, but now people will know me for community service. I think it encourages other people who go through that type of situation to reach out and find another outlet."
Community service is required in some fashion for all South Carolina student-athletes, but Bittner and Hassler point out that it's an important part of the culture within their respective teams and the athletics department as a whole.
"We're always willing to go out and do something for others," Bittner said. "(Swimming and Diving) Coach (McGee) Moody provides a lot of leadership and knows a lot of people in the community. After the floods, he was really out there telling us that we needed to round up as many people as we could to help other people. I see it as something we are meant to do."
Community service efforts can range from opportunities at Transitions Homeless Recovery Center, Special Olympics, Harvest Hope Food Bank, or serving as mentors for children in local elementary schools.
"I think community service and working with kids is important because we were in their shoes once," Hassler said. "I work a lot in the elementary schools. For kids to see someone who can be a role model, especially a student-athlete, can be huge. Making a difference in one kid's life is something I can really do, and is something I'd be very proud of. At the community level, these are the people that support us at our games and events, so when they see us out there helping others, maybe it can inspire them to help other people too."
Hassler and Bittner agree that while they hope they are making an impact, they do get something out of their efforts as well.
"It doesn't matter who the person is," Bittner said. "If I can make in impact on them, that makes me feel comforted inside. Whether it's an eight year old kid I'm helping with a math problem, or doing something with an elderly person who just wants to come in and eat dinner at the homeless shelter, it's all rewarding to know I made someone feel good."
"The kids always teach me something," Hassler laughed. "It's humbling to know how you are perceived by others, especially children. They are very honest in their opinions. You're a student-athlete, but you're just a regular person, too."
The SEC will announce the overall winners later this spring, but regardless of whether their name is called, Bittner and Hassler already have plans to keep giving back.
"As soon as SEC (Championships) are over, I already have three things lined up," Bittner said. "I'm going out to a fish hatchery in Cayce. I will also be mentoring at Catawba Trail Elementary School again, and of course I'll be at Transitions at least twice per month."