Columbia College is helping to build leaders.

Cindy Fotti '05

Former Cougar softball player Cindy Fotti '05 spent a fair amount of time on the diamond while in college. But sometimes when she put down her glove, she would walk a couple of blocks to Field Elementary School and pick up a book in the name of a good cause.

As a student athlete at Columbia College, Fotti was taught the importance of community service, so she dedicated some of her free time reading to elementary students."I remember how those little kids looked up to us when we spent time reading with them. It was through that experience that I came to realize that I am a role model, and I can make a difference," she said.

Columbia College's athletic department participates in the NAIA's Champions of Character program, which seeks to instill in athletes the fundamental values of respect, responsibility, integrity, servant leadership and sportsmanship."The NAIA's concept is to have all athletic departments weave these core values into everything we do," Athletic Director Bob Burchard said, noting that these values are not only important in athletics but also in everyday life." At the beginning of each year, we meet with every team and talk about our expectations," Burchard said."They sign a Code of Conduct that espouses these five core values."

Burchard said the athletes are encouraged to participate in community-service projects. The athletic department is a Partner-in-Education with Field Elementary. Cougar athletes regularly read with students and also organize a Field Day at the school each year. Fotti and her teammates would also volunteer at the Humane Society.

Although Fotti, who hails from Canada, initially got involved with community service at the nudge of the athletic department, the experience of engaging with the community has had a lasting impact and helped transform her into a leader, even after graduation.

Two years ago, Fotti became a coach for the Team in Training program, a marathon preparation program sponsored by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Fotti has run several full and half marathons, but now enjoys coaching others as they pursue their running dreams, while at the same time raising funds to help fight leukemia and lymphoma. Fotti has coached about 70 runners. When her trainees are struggling and feel like giving up-like during those 20-mile training runs-Fotti is quick to remind them of the impact their fundraising will have. Fotti knows each person can make a difference-it is something she learned as an athlete at Columbia College.

The former all-conference second baseman and team captain has not ventured far from her playing roots. Fotti currently serves as Columbia College's assistant director of athletics/media relations and compliance. "This is a hard place to leave," she said.

Burchard believes that some student athletes naturally develop the skills they will need to be successful leaders in the future."There are certain competitive life skills learned on the courts and fields of play that are difficult to replicate in other areas," he said.

For the most part, student athletes have a solid work ethic and are highly disciplined. The hard part, Burchard says, is helping students transition to a life not centered on sports.

For students who have viewed themselves primarily as athletes, graduation will bring a great change and transition of identity. "Our challenge," Burchard says, "is to identify the skills they have learned in their sports and make the students aware of the crossover value as they transition from athlete to businessman or athlete to educator ... whatever it may be."