WKU Soccer

Western Kentucky sophomore Jordan Strauss (right) takes part in the Soccer United Against Hunger campaign earlier this month.

When Western Kentucky women’s soccer coach Jason Neidell learned of an opportunity for his players to give back to their local communities as part of a nationwide campaign, he knew just who to ask to lead the charge.

Ashley Leonard, a rising senior at WKU, was the obvious choice as the leader of the team’s community service committee, and has led the Lady Toppers in the Soccer United Against Hunger campaign to help take action against hunger amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The team, competing to raise donations of food and money, leads Conference USA as the June drive nears its end.

“I asked Ashley if she would be interested in spearheading our efforts here at WKU and she said, ‘Absolutely. Yes, coach, I would love to,’ ” Neidell said in a phone interview with the Daily News. “And she’s taken it and run with it.”

The idea for the food drive originated within a group of Division I men’s and women’s soccer coaches, according to Neidell. Programs across the nation have been taking part in the campaign, which has since spread down to the Division II and III levels, Neidell said.

“They basically got together and said, ‘Hey, we know this situation has been tough on us being quarantined, being away from our teams and being away from the sport we love, but we also know it’s been tough on the communities we live in.’ People are out of work and a lot of people are going hungry. This is something we can champion as an entire sports body to promote positive social change and feed America,” Neidell said.

In some programs, coaches have taken on the efforts of organizing the drive, but Neidell said they were encouraged to turn it over to the players.

Enter Leonard – a 5-foot-5 forward who led the team with eight goals last fall and was named the C-USA Fall Spirit of Service award winner.

Leonard has spearheaded WKU’s efforts and, as of Friday, the team had raised $3,051 and 83 pounds of food, she said – marks that lead C-USA. The campaign lasts until the end of the month, and Leonard encouraged those wishing to donate to visit the Soccer United Against Hunger Website or the team’s Instagram page for more information.

“Just with everything going on right now and so many people being unemployed and losing their jobs, it’s really important that people still can find a way to eat,” Leonard said in a phone interview with the Daily News.

She says she became involved in community service activities while in high school at Troy Athens in Troy, Mich. The school had a “Charity Week,” where one organization was selected as a fundraising recipient. Leonard said they raised up to $155,000 her senior year, and that it opened her eyes to the importance of giving back. Now, she leads the team’s community service committee.

“When I got to college, my platform grew to be able to do that,” Leonard said. “There’s a lot of good opportunities in the community to just get out there and give back because the community really supports us as athletes, and I think it’s important to show support back to them as well.”

Students were forced away from campus in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, so while away from Bowling Green, the campaign was organized by Leonard and other class representatives. Neidell and Leonard say its been beneficial because its allowed the team to raise donations for the communities they currently reside in – Sophia Fondren, a transfer from Stephen F. Austin, for example, has been able to serve her community in Texas, Leonard says.

“I’ve donated in Michigan up where I live, and girls that live in Florida have donated and Kentucky, so it’s kind of cool to participate all the way across the country just by being one team,” Leonard said.

Neidell has seen the benefits the campaign has had on his team, too. He says it’s given his players an opportunity to come together for a common cause during a time of isolation – WKU’s soccer team isn’t scheduled to return to campus until July 6, according to the school’s COVID-19 athletic restart plan – and it has also given them a way to compete within the conference after C-USA athletic events came to a screeching halt March 12.

“I think one of the things over probably the last couple years during Ashley’s tenure is the idea of competition in everything that we do, and this is just another avenue of trying to excel in our competitive spirit, but then on a general level, man, our student athletes – with so much going on in the world right now – I feel like our student athletes have done a really, really good job of using their platforms – especially on social media – as leaders for positive change in our communities,” he said.

“Whether it’s being a role model to younger players in soccer skills on social media and what to do, or a role model of wearing a mask properly and being socially conscious about that, or whether it’s Black Lives Matter or whether it’s a national food drive, our players have really been advocates for positive social causes.”{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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