Football Broncos tackle tree clearing for Habitat for Humanity

Contact: Erin Flynn
A shirtless man carries some branches he is clearing from a lot.

Bronco football player Tony Balabani clears brush from a lot for Kalamazoo Valley Habitat for Humanity.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The Western Michigan University football team is used to long, grueling summer training. But it's not often the student-athletes get a chance to show off their ax-swinging chops or trade in a blocking sled for a line of trees to take down.

"From the word go, these guys took the ball and ran with it," says Tim Smolenski, director of community relations and volunteer services for Kalamazoo Valley Habitat for Humanity, who reached out to the Broncos for some help clearing a property in Kalamazoo's Eastside neighborhood.

A football player grabs a branch to break it off of a tree while clearing a lot.

Zaire Barnes pulls a large branch off of a tree.

After an early morning wake-up call for conditioning, members of the football team's Bronco Leadership Council headed out to a lot filled with trees and brush that will eventually hold two houses for families in need.

"It's a grind for sure, but nothing beats giving back," says Zaire Barnes, a defensive back and computer information systems major from Mundelein, Illinois. "So, we're out here working in the heat, but we love it."



While volunteering provided an opportunity for some extra strength training, safety Justin Tranquill says it also gave the Broncos a chance to live their motto: "Our Town. Our Team."


"We have so much support from people within the community that come to games, donate and support us," says Tranquill, of Huntertown, Indiana, who recently graduated with a degree in sales and business marketing and is currently pursuing his MBA. "So, this is just one way we can give back and show that we appreciate what they do for us."

Video of WMU football helps Habitat for Humanity

The call to service is something Tim Lester, head football coach, works hard to instill in players.

"Our mission as a program is to arm our student-athletes with the tools they need to be successful in life. Developing servant leadership fits into that mission and developing that in their four to five years with us in Kalamazoo is very important to us as a staff."

It's a mission Tranquill and his teammates take very seriously.

"Whether it's Habitat for Humanity, putting on events at the stadium, going to the children's hospital or Ministry with Community, there are so many areas that we've had the opportunity to serve in," says Tranquill. "I don't think we would have had that opportunity or known about it outside of football, so it's just been a blessing for us."


A group of hockey players sits on several trees they cut down.

Bronco hockey players pose after a long day of work. (Kalamazoo Valley Habitat for Humanity)

Across the board, Bronco athletes make a point to give back to the community. Just a week ago, the WMU hockey team braved triple-digit heat indices to help clear a Habitat for Humanity property.

Smolenski says both teams used their athletic ability to do some incredible work in a short amount of time.

"Many of these individuals are seniors, so they've been on the team for a long time and they know how important teamwork is. With Habitat, we couldn't do the work we do without our volunteers all collaborating together to serve one goal, which is to fix the affordable housing problem."

The work may not be glamorous, but it's manual labor that could lead to life-changing results for families who may not otherwise have the opportunity to own a home.

"This is our eighth active Habitat site in the community, so there is no shortage of work. We're always looking for volunteers," says Smolenski, adding that WMU student-athletes have been a great support to the organization. "It's an amazing partnership, absolutely."

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