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For the Love of the Game

At a festival in Ecuador, VOLeaders and athletes with disabilities learned what unites them.

“Being around people who have the same love for sport as we do, being able to share that even with the language barriers, being able to connect with sport was probably the best thing about the festival,” said Alyssa Andreno, a Lady Vols volleyball player and member of the VOLeaders Academy.

The academy is a partnership between three areas of the university: the Center for Leadership and Service; the Center for Sport, Peace, and Society; and the Department of Athletics. Participants for the yearlong program are selected from UT student-athletes through a highly competitive process.

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VOLeaders Academy combines academics, student life, and athletics unlike any other program in the country.

After taking a combination of specialized courses during the academic year, the VOLeaders go on an international service exchange during the summer.

“This trip allows them to really understand the power of sport and the capability of sport to unite and connect people from all different countries,” said Joe Scogin, senior associate athletics director.

Since this year’s class learned a lot about how sports impact people with disabilities, Ecuador’s National Paralympic Committee hosted the VOLeaders’ summer service.

On their first full day in Ecuador, the VOLeaders visited the US ambassador and co-hosted a festival for athletes with disabilities.

During a festival for athletes with disabilities the VOLeaders co-hosted in Quito, they played blind soccer, seated volleyball, and wheelchair basketball.

It took time for Vol basketball forward Grant Williams to adjust, but he learned to get down the court and make shots from a wheelchair.

“One of the best things about basketball is that you can play with a group of friends whether you’re running down the court or not,” Williams said.

In seated volleyball, the VOLeaders had to stay seated on the court and get the ball over a lower net using only their arms.

“Being able to understand what some of these people are going through and play their sport on the same court was really important for all of us to experience,” Andreno explained.

Wearing blinders to take on a soccer team with visual impairments may have been the VOLeaders’ biggest challenge.

“I literally had no idea what direction I was facing,” All-American midfielder Katie Cousins admitted.

“I think this visit gave everybody we saw hope,” said Bayron Lopez, president of Ecuador’s National Paralympic Committee. “Most people here say, ‘Oh, if I go to high school that’s it for me. I have to get married. I have to have children.’ But it doesn’t have to be like that.

“The way they learn from the VOLeaders, and all the work the University of Tennessee is doing around the world, is that they can see there’s something else. Now they’re motivated to continue studying, to work hard, to play sports—not only to win medals or trophies, but they know they can change the world through sports.”

The disabilities sports festival was part of UT’s Volunteering with the Vols, a day of community service for students and alumni. “One day. One family. All Vols,” describes the program, as well as Cousins’s feelings about the players from Ecuador. “They’re part of my family because they love something that I love,” she said.

The VOLeaders have impacted children, paralympic athletes, and community workers around the world since 2016.