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This week, eight Wildcats are taking part in a service trip in Ethiopia. Throughout the week, the student-athletes will take turns describing their experience. Please note that these posts are the personal reactions of the student-athletes and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky and UK Athletics. For perspective on Thursday's activities, we turn to Angelica Whaley and Brett Johnson.

Angelica Whaley (track and field)

Angelica Whaley of UK track and field works interacts with locals in Ethiopia. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Angelica Whaley of UK track and field works interacts with locals in Ethiopia. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
We began our second day here in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, bright and early at 8 a.m. local time with breakfast and then headed to a local community center. There, we met a case worker that is the head of a sponsorship program for impoverished families. We found that our main task for the day was to deliver mattresses to families that were in need - a task that seemed so simple to us but meant so much to people who piled leaves on the ground as a form of bare minimum cushion from the ground. The first woman to whom we delivered a mattress and frame to was a recently saved, HIV-positive mother of one young boy. The joy and appreciation in her face was like an unexpected gift to me; she was so gracious. Her son who was about 2 or 3 years old was literally a bundle of joy who smiled and pranced around everywhere. To have what we, as Americans, would call "nothing" and to live as if he had everything in the world in the way he laughed, smiled, giggled, and played was truly a blessing to see. We gave him a small toy, nothing extravagant, and the way his face lit up is something that I will never forget. The way all the children's faces lit up even more when we gave them toys period was a sight to see; it was pure, unadulterated happiness.

We traveled to a nearby city named Kai Afar to deliver another mattress to a local widow. The outside of her house was plastered with mud but had a definite structure to it unlike many of the "huts" and "shacks" that we've seen thus far; her neighborhood is considered to be a part of the more urban area. She was so warm and welcoming. Once we gave her the mattress, she insisted that we come in her home and have a seat. A few of us eagerly piled in as she rummaged about, rearranging the small amount of furniture that she had so that we all could fit. She was beyond gracious and didn't know much English but one phrase that she was completely familiar with was "thank you." She constantly said "I'm very, very thank you." She prayed for us and told us that we were a blessing to her and that she loved us. She said it meant so much that we came such a long way to deliver her a mattress. She shared with us that she suffers from an internal disease that affects her nervous system, and it often times causes her to be sick. Also, she shared with us that she has three children, one of whom we met book-in-hand in her home. Three people were sleeping on the twin-sized makeshift bed she had when we got there, but tonight, she and her family will sleep more comfortably with an extra mattress on the ground. We offered to pray for her, and she agreed, but she asked that if we pray for her, pray for her extended family members as well.

After our prayers, she thanked us again and again and began to cry. She revealed to us that at times, she felt as if God didn't know her and that he forgot about her. She shared that all the times that she was sick, no one came to see her or help her with her family, but we came. She said that we were her treasure. What we did for her was greater than the mattress, and it was greater than the simple toy that we gave her neighbor. We became a tangible confirmation of her faith. She was at her breaking point with her situation, and God used us as a blessing for her life. The entire visit was emotionally heavy and left many of us in tears; it was incredible to feel God move in that way. Through everything, she has had steadfast faith, and through us, God was able to show her that He takes care of all of His people. It is important to know that here in Ethiopia, religion is everything, compared to America where religion is somewhat "lost."

Nothing but love was felt but little did she know she was truly as much of a blessing, if not more, to us as she said we were to her. She is a beautiful soul inside and out. Through it all, she continues to put others first. She is truly a woman of gold, and I will never forget those soft, endearing eyes. A mattress brought us together. It is the donation of a plain, old mattress that has deeply impacted my life. Even with all the miles apart, it is our love of Christ that will keep us together (as said by our new friend). And she is completely right. 

We spent the rest of the day building relationships, giving small toys to children, and giving away coffee and sugar to many poor women at the community center. They tell us that it's not how much we brought but that we came.  We came 9,000 miles to spend time with them, and they were so thankful. You often hear them say "ameseginalehu," which means "thank you" in their Amharic language. The same young boy whose mother received a mattress, later greeted us with hugs, plants, and flowers - gifts that have proven to be the sweetest I have ever received and will cherish forever. Everyone constantly says, "God bless you," and we said the same in return, but God is blessing us all along this journey.

Lastly, we drove an older woman that has sickness in her legs that even makes walking to her home difficult.  She is on the waiting list for a sponsor who can change her life emotionally, spiritually, and economically. Sponsorship only costs $35 U.S. We prayed for her, and she was gracious like all the other women with whom we came in contact. As of now and as a group, we are waiting to see if it is acceptable for us to sponsor her. 

Today was a day like no other day I will experience in my life.  We've asked ourselves questions like "How can they do this?" or "How can they live that way?" But, I've realized why would they question their lifestyles if they have never seen, heard or even thought differently? This world is all they know, and even still, they, as a people, are happier and more peaceful than any place in America.  They are patient and loving people who live in a place where men can walk hand in hand as a sign of love and respect for one another with no judgment. These people are too busy with survival to spend all of their days judging one another. I love this culture. I love these people. Compared to our country, they may be "poor" outwardly, but they are wealthy in their hearts and spirit. 

Brett Johnson (men's tennis)
Brett Johnson is spending this week in Ethiopia with seven fellow Wildcats. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Brett Johnson is spending this week in Ethiopia with seven fellow Wildcats. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
"Selam" (Hello), "Ameseginalehu" (Thank you), "Simi man new?" (What's your name?) and "Cint amete new?" (How old are you?), were just a few phrases that came in handy today. After some wonderful morning quiet time, outstanding breakfast and a quick run, we began our "never going to forget this day" journey.

We started off the day a little differently than expected. We made our way over to the community center to soon realize the supplies for the day were not yet ready. Pastor Mark thought it would be a good idea to go on over to the bank to "quickly" convert our U.S dollars to Ethiopian birr. We had everyone put all their money in a bag, and Stephanie Fox was elected to be our money representative. So Pastor Mark, Stephanie and I make our way into the bank, expecting a five-minute exchange. Oh no! After 45 minutes Stephanie was still in the back "exchanging" money. Not what we were expecting, but everything ended turning out fine. 

Upon receiving a phone call from the representative for the community center saying the supplies were ready, we headed back to the center. We loaded up several beds, several pillows and many sheets. We were ready to go serve. Our first stop was to a single mother, who was currently working a quick shop. We pulled up to her "shop" and I look over and I see a gleaming smile on this woman's face. She hurried over to the van to meet us all. After several minutes of talking, eating her biscuits and prayer with her, we were off to a small town called Kai Afar not realizing what some of us considered "a day we will never forget."

Pulling into these tin-roofed, plastic-covered homes, we arrive in Kai Afar. Several of us get out to deliver the mattress, pillows and sheets. We duck our heads, and enter this mud-covered home and are ushered by this joy-filled widow to "sit down and get comfortable." After small talk with this widow and her youngest daughter, our hearts begin to melt. We asked the lady if there was any prayers we could say for her and she proceeded to tell us about a dysfunction in her nervous system. She was in severe pain, but we would have NEVER guessed it! She seemed as if she had the whole world in her hands! The joy and positive attitude that this woman had and the faith she had that God would provide was astounding and it brought all of us to tears. When praying for her and praying for healing, we were all a wreck. After hugging and saying our good-byes, my eyes were opened to a reality. How much do I need to be thankful? This woman had NOTHING, yet seemed as if she had EVERYTHING. I was excited to see where God would put us next.
 
It was around lunchtime and we all were ready to eat. We ate at a rodeo restaurant, where many of us had authentic food. With our bellies full, we were ready to keep serving. We made our way back over to the community center where we distributed sugar and coffee to the mothers. Again, they couldn't stop thanking us and blessing us. Upon hearing stories from several of the women, a very special one stood up and shared her story. She was also a single mother, in need of money and a sponsor, because she is unable to work because of severe pains in both her legs and an HIV-positive diagnosis. Several of our hearts went out to her. Some of us drove her back to her home and were able to pray for healing and that an opportunity would open up for someone to sponsor her. Yet again, never would have guessed anything was wrong in her life because she was bubbly and always smiling and hugging. Again, how much do I need to be thankful?

It was beginning to get late so we all decided to head back to the guest house, where some of us realized we still had a lot of energy. So we asked Rock Oliver to take us to the gym to get a late night workout in. To say the least, I'm going to be super-sore in the morning. This concluded our wonderful Thursday. We all want to say thank you for the prayers and thoughts, we are continually driven by the joy these people express. Our hearts are captivated by their sincerity and thankfulness. We are excited to see God at work the rest of the trip!

Eight UK student-athletes arrived in Ethiopia on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Eight UK student-athletes arrived in Ethiopia on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
This week, eight Wildcats are taking part in a service trip in Ethiopia. Throughout the week, the student-athletes will take turns describing their experience. First up are Jarrod Polson and Stephanie Fox on their long voyage to Africa and their first day serving.

Jarrod Polson (men's basketball)

We started our journey to Ethiopia around 10 a.m. ET on Monday morning. We drove to the Cincinnati airport where we took off for Washington, D.C., arriving around 430 p.m. After checking into the hotel near the airport, we had the wonderful privilege of taking a three-hour tour around D.C in the "fun van," as our driver called it. We were able to see most of the famous attractions including the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and even got a glimpse of the White House. During the tour, we were fed both a countless amount of information and some cheese puffs that were out of this world. Once done with that escapade, we proceeded to partake in the "last supper," as we liked to call it. We chose to go to the Cheesecake Factory and were not disappointed. Knowing that we probably wouldn't have an American meal for at least a week, we took the honor of each ordering an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. After stuffing our faces, we came back to the hotel and rested up for the journey ahead.

The next day we woke up around 6:30 a.m. so we could catch our 9:15 a.m. flight. After purchasing a comfortable neck pillow and a hearty bagel breakfast, we boarded the plane and began our 13-hour flight to Ethiopia.  Fortunately, it wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting. The seats were pretty spread apart and after watching three movies, taking a few naps and reading a little bit, we finally landed in Africa promptly and safely. It took a while to get out of the airport because we had to go through customs. Once the particulars were done, we checked into the Addis Guest House. It didn't take long to see such a culture change from America to Ethiopia. One of the big things that I wasn't even expecting was the driving. Ethiopia is actually a very busy place to drive, and it doesn't help that there are hardly any lines on the road and people literally are walking in and out of traffic, even on the "highways." We quickly learned that it is kind of a free for all, as drivers do not stop for pedestrians, even if they are literally a few feet away from them. I also should mention that I heard more car honks today alone than I have in my entire life.

Anyways, after getting settled into our rooms we ate a quick breakfast right there at the guest house and got ready for the day. We drove to one of the poorer areas in Ethiopia and helped out with covering a woman's house with plastic as it wasn't keeping the rain and wind out very effectively.  A few of us went into the house and that's when it really hit me how underprivileged some of the people are. This house was about the size of a bedroom and was occupied by a few sheets and blankets for a bed, some old pots and pans and that's about it. It was hard not to feel bad for the woman, but the crazy part was just how joyful she seemed to be and thankful for what we were doing. Talk about a wakeup call!

My favorite part of the day by far was getting to meet my new buddy Alamiyoo. Funny story: As I was hammering some nails into the wood to keep the plastic up, a little 10-year-old boy came up to me and pretty much showed me how it was done. I'll be honest, I was a little mad at first because he was showing me up and making me look pretty worthless, but we soon became really good friends. I got to play a lot of "games" with him (mainly raising my hand up and seeing how high he could reach it or teaching him how to do the "Dougie") . Alamiyoo and all the other children we got to play with really taught us a good lesson. Here they are living in houses with dirt floors and plastic walls, hungry and thirsty most of the day, and they were some of the most joyous people I have ever met. I can think of so many times where I complain about the littlest things, and these kids have nothing and still have huge smiles on their faces. Today as a whole was very shocking, and I'm certain that the people of Ethiopia are going to help us out way more than we could ever even think of helping them, simply through the joy they show in the worst of circumstances.

Stephanie Fox (women's tennis)

We started out adventure in Ethiopia when we arrived at the airport at 7:30 a.m. Many of us got very little sleep but were still ready and excited for the day ahead. We arrived at our hotel - The Guest House - and after breakfast headed to work.

Our job was to insert plastic wrapping around two houses that helps keep wind and rain out. This is very important because it is winter in Ethiopia and rains nearly every day! The people were very grateful and it was a great time working with them to help improve their living situation as best we could.

The families were great and I think a lot of us would agree a huge highlight of the day was the children we spent time with at the houses. They were all vibrant and full of energy! I can already tell this trip is going to help each of us grow and I'm so thankful to experience this with other UK athletes. Can't wait to experience the rest of the trip!

Link: College sports Twitter accounts ranked

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Twitter1.png The social-media presence of the Big Blue Nation is well-established. On Wednesday, rankings were released that reinforce that.

Tennessee Athletics compiled top-25 rankings in terms of Twitter followers for various sports. As you'd expect, numerous Kentucky teams make appearances.

UK fields teams in 12 of the sports ranked and is in the top 25 of eight of them. Football isn't far off, while swimming and diving and women's soccer are relatively new to Twitter, so they could join soon as well. Additionally, four teams (women's basketball - No. 2, track and field - No. 3, volleyball - No. 4 and men's basketball - No. 5) rank in the top five in their respective sport.

Check out the complete rankings here.

Taking a look at general athletic department accounts, @UKAthleticsNews ranks sixth nationally. UK is also sixth in Facebook fans and eighth in YouTube subscriptions.

Directors_cup_logo_FINAL_color.jpg With another year in the books, the University of Kentucky athletic department continues to advance toward its goal of building a comprehensive program that excels in all areas.

On Thursday, word arrived that UK has attained its best finish ever in one of the most recognizable measures of athletic department success: the Learfield Sports Directors' Cup.

UK is 25th in the final 2012-13 Directors' Cup standings, the first top-25 finish in school history. The previous record finish of 26th came in 1996-97. UK also tied a school record by placing sixth among Southeastern Conference schools even though the conference featured 14 teams for the first time this season. The SEC led all conferences with three institutions in the top 10 - Florida (second), Texas A&M (fifth) and Georgia (10th).

The finish continues a pattern of consistent improvement in the Directors' Cup during the Mitch Barnhart era. UK has now finished in the top 30 of final Directors' Cup standings in three of the last four years after a 50th-place finish in 2002-03, the first year after Barnhart's arrival. With that steady upward trend, Barnhart's ambitious aim of finishing in the top 15 by 2015 as part of the 15 by 15 by 15 Plan introduced in 2008 seems attainable.

Directors cup2.jpg The Directors' Cup was founded in 1993-94 as a result of a joint effort by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and USA Today. Points are awarded by sport when teams advance to the postseason in sports sanctioned by the NCAA. Fifteen of UK's 22 programs combined to score UK's 748 points, led by rifle's second-place finish, an Elite Eight appearance by women's basketball and trips to the round of 16 by volleyball, men's tennis and softball. (See left for complete scoring by sport.)

Rifle also brought home a conference championship in 2013, adding another tally toward Barnhart's goal of 15 conference and national titles won before 2015. Now at 11 since 2008, UK needs four more championships in the next two seasons to reach its objective. UK student-athletes also reached Barnhart's goal of a 3.0 department-wide grade-point average in both the fall and spring semesters for the first time in 2012-13, fulfilling the academic side of the 15 by 15 by 15 vision.

But even with all that success, improvement is on Barnhart's mind.

"When you have 22 programs, you have some highs and some lows, some things that you wanted to do really, really well and some things that you want to do better," Barnhart said in a recent interview with Gary Graves of the Associated Press. "Sometimes, we take it for granted because we've been steady the last few years in consistent growth. But clearly, the sports that gather the most attention, rightly or wrongly, are ones we've got to get better in."

The sports about which Barnhart is talking are, of course, men's basketball and football. Even though neither contributed toward UK's record Directors' Cup finish, there's reason to believe they will both be doing so soon.

"It's been an interesting year in that we've had some things to celebrate, and that's been fun," Barnhart said. "Fans look at three or four sports, first and foremost, and it's interesting that while we might not have had the success that we've wanted or been used to, excitement for those sports is at an all-time high."

Barely a year removed from its eighth national championship, John Calipari's men's basketball program will welcome one of the top recruiting classes in history next season and could be in line for a preseason No. 1 ranking. Mark Stoops, meanwhile, has whipped Kentucky's football fan base into a frenzy during his first seven months on the job. After UK signed an impressive class in February, 50,831 attended the Blue/White Spring game to help set the stage for what could be an even better 2014 class.

Barnhart is now challenging those teams to turn excitement into results during the next season and beyond and asking those that had success in 2012-13 to pursue even more.

This spring, he had t-shirts made and distributed to student-athletes, coaches and staff emblazoned with the phrase "Almost Isn't Good Enough." To put it another way, Barnhart is telling everyone involved in UK Athletics that pursuit of anything less than being the best is unacceptable.

"We've done a lot of great things in the last year and over the last decade," Barnhart said at the CATSPY Awards in April. "That's now just the foundation. We're on a new journey and much more is expected."

CATS site.jpg The 2012-13 academic year was a memorable one for UK student-athletes. For the first time ever, Wildcats on scholarship met Mitch Barnhart's goal and achieved a cumulative grade-point average of at least 3.0 for both the fall and spring semesters. For their accomplishments, UK student-athletes received deserved praise.

Remaining in the background, however, was another group of hardworking members of the athletic department: Center for Academic and Tutorial Services employees, graduate assistants and tutors. CATS staffers dedicate themselves every day to the academic, personal and social growth of the student-athletes with whom they work and have played an important role in building the culture of UK Athletics beyond the playing field.

Last week, that role was put on more prominent display on a new website: CATSacademics.com.

In conjunction with Assistant Director of Media Relations Pete Camagna and Assistant Director of Multimedia Cailyn Huston, CATS developed its new website to showcase the extensive support network that UK provides for student-athletes. It features profiles of an award-winning staff and a look at the facilities and services offered. In addition, the site will be updated regularly with news about recent accomplishments by Wildcats and relevant information and deadlines for current and prospective student-athletes and their parents.

Click here to visit CATSacademics.com.

The book is closed on UK Athletics' 2012-13 season, but a record is still within reach.

On Friday, updated Directors' Cup standings were released and UK came in 25th. UK scored 120 points since the latest standings update on the strength of solid performance by softball (advanced to super regionals) and men's track and field (finished 18th at NCAA Championships).

With no more Wildcat teams competing, UK won't score any more points. However, if UK remains in 25th place, it would set a school record for the highest finish in the 20-year history of the Directors' Cup, making progress toward Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart's goal of finishing in the top 15 by the year 2015. The previous record is 26th, set in 1996-97.

UK also ranks sixth among Southeastern Conference schools in the latest standings. That would tie a school record also set in 1996-97.

UK teams reach APR requirements once more

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The NCAA released new Academic Progress Rates on Tuesday and, once again, the University of Kentucky's 22 teams surpassed requirements and avoided any penalties.

This release has more information on the news and the APR - which the NCAA uses to measure academic eligibility and student-athlete retention - but here are some additional notes.

  • As you can see in the chart below, 14 of UK's 22 teams exceeded the national average APR score for their respective sports, led by men's and women's golf with perfect scores of 1,000. Additionally, 15 UK teams exceeded the average public school APR for their respective sports.
  • The emphasis on APR scores has increased in recent years and UK has responded. Seventeen teams have improved their scores since 2004-05 and 16 improved or received the same score compared to last year.
  • APR requirements will become even more stringent next year. To maintain postseason eligibility will require either a 930 four-year APR or a 940 two-year average beginning in 2015. Even though the new threshold is a year away from coming into effect, UK's scores also exceed those tougher requirements.
  • Below is a chart with UK's four-year APR scores by sport this year, last year and in the first year of the APR, as well as national averages.

11-12 APR.jpg

m6340297_514x260-logo.jpg Like the rest of the country, Mark Stoops and Mitch Barnhart have kept close tabs on this week's tragic events in Oklahoma. The UK head coach and athletics director shared compassion for the victims of Monday's destructive tornado.

They also share personal ties to the area. Barnhart and Stoops each have family who lives within a few miles of Moore, Okla.: Barnhart's brother Eric, Stoops' brothers Bob and Mike and the families of all three.

Driven by sympathy and familiarity with the area and people affected, Stoops and Barnhart have decided to do something to help.

"I have kept a close eye on the tragic events in Oklahoma this week," Barnhart said. "My heart goes out to all those affected. My brother Eric lives three miles from where the tornado hit, so the devastation has hit close to home for me even though he is safe."

"I am so thankful my family and friends are alright after the storms in Oklahoma," Stoops said. "However, we are heartbroken for those affected by this tragedy."

Stoops, Barnhart and women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell will all donate to the American Red Cross's tornado relief efforts. John Calipari announced his foundation will donate to the cause earlier this week as well.

Now, the leaders of UK Athletics want Kentucky fans to join in.

"We hope the Big Blue Nation will once again show its giving spirit," Stoops said. "There's only so much any of us can do on our own, but we make a real impact together."

Those wishing to donate after may call 859-253-1331 or 1-800-REDCROSS. Fans can also donate money online at RedCross.org or by texting "REDCROSS" to 90999 (the text will automatically donate $10). In person donations can be made in-person at Fayette Mall (corner of Nicholasville Road and Reynolds Road) on Thursday, May 23 and Friday, May 24 from 3:00 p.m. ET to 7:00 p.m.

No matter how you donate, tweet with the hash tag #BBNcares to show that UK fans stand with the Oklahoma tornado victims.

K Fund introduces 'Big Blue Initiative'

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Big-Blue-Initiative2-1024x256.jpg Thanks to the generosity of its supporters, UK Athletics operates as one of the only self-sufficient departments in the nation. Each day, we work to prove ourselves worthy of that support.

This year, we are proud of our efforts. We are on pace for the best Directors' Cup finish in school history - we rank 20th after the conclusion of the winter sports season - and our student-athletes have excelled in the classroom and the community as well.

But at the annual CATSPY Awards in April, Mitch Barnhart challenged everyone involved with UK Athletics to do more. He challenged student-athletes, coaches and staff to become the nation's best overall athletic department.

It is with that in mind that the K Fund introduces the "Big Blue Initiative."

From May 1 through June 30, the program - which is entirely philanthropic - will offer the opportunity to impact the lives of our student-athletes and Invest In Blue once more. Each dollar will go into our annual fund, which ensures the success of the student-athletes, providing everything from scholarships to athletic equipment to books to meals. We will be sending more information about the Big Blue Initiative to current donors in the coming days and weeks.

To join, donors need only increase their annual giving by 15 percent. If you gave $100 in 2012-13, we are asking that you give an additional $15 before June 30. If you gave $1,000 in 2012-13, that means an additional $150.

Beyond helping UK push toward our athletics director's bold vision, participants will receive the added benefit of a tax deduction and five bonus K Fund points on top of the regular three points per $100 donation.

To become the country's top athletic department, it will take tireless effort and determination on the part of our coaches, but it won't be possible at all without your support. Please consider taking this important step with us.

If you have any questions about the Big Blue Initiative, feel free to contact the K Fund at 859-257-6300 or visit KFundonline.com.

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