URBANA — An idea floated around by Bret and Jen Bielema and pitched on the Illini practice field roughly a month ago came to fruition on Thursday night at Walmart in Urbana.
The Bielema family wanted to donate to the Champaign-Urbana community for the holiday season and partnered with YoungLives and Healthy Beginnings to ease the financial difficulties on young mothers in the community. Roughly 50 mothers ranging from 15 to 19 years old received $200 from the Bielema family to do Christmas shopping. The tab ended up being more than $10,000 on the Bielema family dime.
“It says so much about their heart to give back,” said Erin Watson, YoungLives director. “I think above that, they want their players to be involved in this give back and have this experience to give back to the community. I think as a coach that speaks volumes to me. I can’t tell you how well the players did with my girls. It just shows me that his team and his players are top-notch. They’re great people.”
The shopping assistants on Thursday? Roughly 70 Illini football players, including star quarterback Tommy DeVito, star safety Sydney Brown, wide receiver Isaiah Williams, defensive lineman Jamal Woods and a majority of the team. Had it not been for finals week on campus, Woods adds, the entire team would have been there.
There was no grand team meeting about signing up to volunteer, but rather a message to the team’s leadership council that quickly made its way around the locker room.
“Holidays, it’s supposed to be a happy and joyful day,” Wood said. “Just to see those smiles on the moms’ faces, knowing their kids would have a successful Christmas, it was something truly different. I wish I grew up around stuff like that. It’s my first time being around doing things for people around holiday times. Just to see the smile on the moms’ face knowing the stress can be gone and they don’t have to worry about buying gifts for their kids. It’s already provided for them.”
Players shopped with the mothers and children and helped them pick out their pre-made Christmas lists or were temporary babysitters with young children in the store while their mothers shopped.
Bret Bielema, the head coach in his second year, and his wife Jen wanted to celebrate the holidays in town while also giving back to a community that more than welcomed them with open arms roughly two years ago.
Their message was well received.
“They get it. Our big word is family,” Woods said. “That’s what Coach B prides himself on, not just family within the Smith Center. It’s family around this whole Champaign area and whole nation with Illini Nation. It’s something he preaches about and he’s living it out.”
Players helped pick out gifts — and got an in-your-face look at the costs of day-to-day supplies like diapers — load and unload carts and then pack bags into cars at the end of the night. Watson was impressed, in particular, with the interaction from the football players to the mothers.
“As a community that our teen moms are seen and recognized as moms, hard-working women and really the real heroes of this that they are selflessly providing every day for their kids and given the opportunity to give a little extra to their kids for Christmas and the blessing that is for them is amazing,” Watson said. “…To have this positive male interaction for 15 to 19-year-old teen moms means a lot to me as the director because I know that is not always the case in my girls’ lives; they deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and the players went above and beyond to do just that.”
Illini football life coach Jason Epperson, who works closely with both the football and men’s basketball team, was instrumental in connecting Bielema with both YoungLives and Healthy Beginnings. Bielema initially pitched the idea of giving back to Epperson, who is involved heavily in the Champaign-Urbana church scene, and the idea came full circle on Thursday.
“I work with these guys every day, and they’re just incredible young men,” Epperson said. “They deal with lots of pressures no one knows, whether it’s school, life, social media. Every single one of those dudes I would love to have in my home, that I would love to have around my kids. It didn’t surprise me at all to see that many of them come out and want to serve the community. They care about the right things, they’re just busy dudes. It’s hard for them to find time maybe to do the things they want to do. When they have the opportunity to do something like this, they jumped at it. They’re just great young men.”
Woods has one game left at Illinois: The ReliaQuest Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 2 before his six collegiate seasons are up. He’s active in the community and coaches a youth flag football team in Tuscola alongside Kendall Smith, a tradition passed down over the course of the last five years on the Illini football team. When Woods saw a large group of freshmen — including quarterback Donovan Leary, running back Aidan Laughery, linebacker Malachi Hood and others — on hand Thursday night, he knew the community-involvement of the Illini football team would be in good shape.
“I feel like it’s going to grow more and more each year. If it wasn’t finals week, we probably would have had the whole team out there,” Woods said. “Just over the years I know it’s going to grow. Coach B is getting the program in the right direction. Just for the older guys like me to be a leader and example for the younger guys, that’s going to help them when they’re in our shoes and they’re going to be helping out the younger guys in the next class and the next class.”