BATON ROUGE, La. — While the 2018 LSU football team played its way to a berth in the Fiesta Bowl, Ann Ollendike shared her vision with LSU Athletics administrators.

As the executive director of Basket of Hope Louisiana, Ollendike manages a charitable organization that benefits seriously ill children and their families. Her goal was to elevate the Basket of Hope operation to a new level with a unique idea she pitched to LSU.

“I shared a vision for a bowl game project, Ollendike said, “and LSU made history with the first Basket of Hope collegiate bowl game project at the Fiesta Bowl.”

Basket of Hope partnered with the LSU football squad to deliver gifts to over 250 patients at Phoenix Children’s Hospital before the Fiesta Bowl, a game in which the Tigers posted a 40-35 win over Central Florida.

The bowl project augmented the connection between LSU and Basket of Hope, a relationship that first started when the football coaches’ wives began preparing baskets and assisting BOH staff in delivering them to Baton Rouge hospitals.

The partnership continued on Friday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, where Basket of Hope and LSU student-athletes and staff, in conjunction with Our Lady of the Lake Health, prepared over 1,000 baskets for delivery to OLOL children’s hospitals in Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Monroe.

Over 22,000 products were packed at the PMAC into baskets that will be given to seriously ill hospitalized children across the state. A basket of hope contains toys, games, crafts and books that are age-specific for the children. There are also items for their siblings, and a hope tote for the parents.

“Basket of Hope’s mission is to nourish the children and their families physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually,” Ollendike explained, “and we do that through a personal gift to the hospital, a basket of hope. The children, when they look at those baskets, their eyes just get so big. They get to feel like a kid again, like they have a sense of control. You see the joy in their faces.

“The parents are very touched emotionally, and you can see the tears in their eyes. They feel alone, and when you gift these baskets to them, they really do feel the love from the community.”

Community service is one of the primary components of LSU’s Tiger Life program, which encourages Tiger student-athletes to be proactive and positive contributors to society.

“That’s exactly what this event allows us to do,” said Tomika Smith, Tiger Life Director of Student-Athlete Engagement. “We have the opportunity to love on the community and support them just as much as they support us every day. This is one of our favorite projects of the year, and it gives us to the opportunity to join Basket of Hope to support our Championship Partner, Our Lady of the Lake.

“It’s wonderful to see how excited the student-athletes get to be able to engage with people in Baton Rouge, work with the hospitals and work with the kids. It’s a passion project for all of them.”

Friday’s event featured participation by dozens of student-athletes who found the experience to be extremely rewarding.

“Being a student-athlete means giving back to the community, and I think this is one of the best ways to do it,” said LSU swimmer Jolee Liles.  “I love this organization, and I think it’s awesome to make these baskets for the kids. It’s a chance to give the kids hope, and you never know if this will be that one thing that helps them get through the day.”

“As an athlete at LSU, we’re given so many resources, so this is an amazing opportunity to give back to the community,” said LSU beach volleyball player Ellie Shank. “It’s super cool to look down the line and see staff members and members of other teams, and it’s a really satisfying process to witness the end result of our efforts.”

Dr. Melissa Weinsz, Tiger Life Director of Student-Athlete Professional Development, said the Basket of Hope project, which culminated the first week of the Fall semester, demonstrates the significant influence LSU’s student-athletes can exert upon their surroundings.

“We try to reiterate to student-athletes that their brand reaches so far, and what they do impacts so many people,” Weinsz explained. “They’re doing it as a group, having fun and impacting the lives of people. We’re hoping to help student-athletes find a pocket where they have a passion about serving the community and are fulfilled by it.

“It’s our first event back on campus as student-athletes and staff, and it’s pivotal we start the year off by setting the precedent of service.”

“I think it’s hugely important, especially in the Baton Rouge area, to get our student-athletes out in the community, because Baton Rouge is the place they call home,” said Leighann Westfall, LSU Athletics’ Executive Director of External Relations. “This project is just the beginning; the mission of our department also includes connecting with the entire state of Louisiana. We want to impact the lives of Louisianans across the state.”

Liles expressed appreciation for the engagement opportunities events like Basket of Hope can provide.

“This is incredible, it’s about more than just swimming or just the sport, and Tiger Life helps to shape us in every way,” Liles said. “We’re growing as people, not just as athletes, and they’re here to make us more well-rounded human beings.”

“Our goal is to equip student-athletes with the ability to be functioning adults outside of their collegiate careers,” Smith said. “So, we’re creating programs around financial literacy and leadership development; we’re creating community service events. We ultimately want them to be able to thrive once they graduate.”

Grateful for Basket of Hope’s partnership with LSU Tiger Life and Our Lady of the Lake, Ollendike beamed as she watched the Tigers stuff toys and books into baskets bound to create joy in children’s hospitals.

“This project happens because of people, these baskets are sponsored by individuals,” Ollendike said. “We don’t get a lot of grants or things like that. We rely on people, and people pack them, and people pray over them, and people give them. There’s a human connection, it’s beautiful.”