The Unaka football team is giving back to the community this summer.

The Rangers have embarked on ambitious community service program to get the student-athletes involved in a number of service projects. That allows the players have a stronger bond to their community and help them grow as community members in addition to helping them fulfill the community service requirements of the Tennessee Promise program.

“Participation has been high and is improving,” Unaka Head Coach O’Brien Bennett said. “Out of our 32 current players, we have had 19 different players participate in at least one community service project.”

So far, Unaka has recorded 103 community service hours. Those projects include working at Daniel Boone Challenger League Baseball, TLC Children’s Food program, landscaping for New Liberty Free Will Baptist Church, and the team is planning a trail day at Roan Mountain State Park.

The community has been welcoming to the service projects.

“Everyone that we have reached out to for service opportunities has been very welcoming and very willing to help facilitate our players getting involved,” Bennett said. “I think this idea is as new to them as it is for us.”

For Bennett, the player response has been incredible to watch as he enters his first season at the helm of the Ranger program.

“Seeing players grow as people is the best part of this job,” Bennett said. “What really excites me is seeing them getting involved, not reluctantly, but enthusiastically. Then, once they have finished, asking about the opportunity to do more. That says a lot about these kids’ character.”

As an added element, the program is also using this as a unique approach to fundraise money for the program, but that is a secondary objection of the overall mission.

“This is a totally new idea for me,” Bennett noted. “The main purpose of the activity is not as a fundraiser, but as an activity to develop leadership, social responsibility, team unity, and to help our athletes towards being able to take advantage of the Tennessee Promise scholarship.”

“As seniors, they know where they can go to get hours. They know they can come with the team and work with us on projects in their own community. For them, if they don’t get college paid for through athletics, they know they will be able to take advantage of Tennessee Promise scholarship to further their education.”

The fundraising aspect came out of necessity according to Bennett.

“As far as a fundraiser, that was a secondary goal of the project that was born of necessity,” Bennett said. “Every small school is going to struggle raising the money required to fund a successful program. In a small community, the fundraising pie has to be divided between all sports, band, clubs, junior high teams, and youth teams. When everyone is cutting a slice of the same pie, the slices just keep getting smaller.”

“Because of that, many teams charge a team fee. I know in Knox County, teams were charging as much as $600 per player to play. Our solution to this problem wasn’t to try to compete for a bigger slice with other great organizations within our community, but to bake a new pie so to speak.”

That led to the creation of the “Serve-a-thon” approach that Bennett and his staff have taken this summer.

“Sponsors would be able to suggest service projects for the team to complete,” Bennett said. “In that way, there would be value provided to the donor as well as to the player and to the team. We currently have several individuals sponsoring a player’s hours as well as local businesses such as Carter County Bank sponsoring the team total hours.“

While the fundraising aspect is beneficial, Bennett was quick to point out that truly is a secondary goal of the project.

“We would be doing this if we weren’t going to raise a penny,” Bennett said. “If you come through our football program, we want it to serve as a catalyst for future success.  In reality, very few high school players get the entirety of their college education paid for through athletics. What we want to do is ensure that our players leave the program with an open door to whatever future they decide to pursue.”

For more information on the project, you can visit the GoFundMe page by clicking here.