AUBURN, Ala. – For many student-athletes at Auburn, showcasing talent in their sport isn’t the only thing on their resume. Many have proven to be true Auburn men and women on and off the field. Melena Smith, a junior on the equestrian team, in particular, has made a huge impact on the community and individuals around her.
The Auburn equestrian team has won the Athletics Department’s community service award for eight years running, since the awards inception. It comes as no surprise when looking at the large number of projects and lives the Auburn equestrian team has impacted during that time.
The SEC recently named Smith to the league’s equestrian community service team. Finding time between class, practice and workouts is rare for many student-athletes. However, for Smith it was important to dedicate time in her busy schedule to a fourth grader at Yarborough Elementary School, who has become close to Smith’s heart.
For this child*, the past couple of years have been especially difficult. She has been in a foster care program, living with several different foster families. However, having Smith by her side has made the process much easier.
“I was asked to mentor a girl in foster care,” says Smith. “Her story just spoke to me. I hang out with her and eat lunch with her when she is at school. She is a very fun and energetic kid. I have just really enjoyed spending time with her.”
In November of last year, the fourth grader received the news that she would have a forever home with one of the foster families she lived with. Smith was by her side for that entire transition from foster care to adoption.
“I went to the ceremony,” Smith said. “It was very emotional and I was really happy for her. She was really strong about it. She was really excited and couldn’t wait to tell everyone her new last name.”
For Smith, being able to be a part in this process has been has been a great experience.
“I have really loved going through the whole process with her,” says Smith. “I love seeing how much she has grown and how strong she has been through the whole thing. It is really cool to see how strong kids are without even knowing it. She is so happy and really wants to help other people. She is very kind-hearted and just a good soul.”
The parents of the child are very appreciative for Melena’s mentorship and the relationship she has formed with their daughter.
“Having Melena around has been great,” said the mother. “Being able to have that consistency rather than moving around from foster home to foster home has really helped her out, and Melena has been there with her through the process. It has been really helpful that Melena has been there to show support and be a friend.”
Smith was able to provide the child with stability and friendship amidst tough times.
“The whole purpose of foster care is to show the child that there is a different way families can be other than what they have experienced,” said the parent. “Melena has been able to show her what can be done with horseback riding or what you can do as a college student. Maybe she can use this experience and help out other kids in foster care when she gets older like Melena did with her.”
In addition to being a mentor to this girl, Smith has also been involved with the Beat Bama Food Drive, Toys for Tots and the SAAC Clothing Drive. She is also a mentor for the freshman and transfer student-athletes through the Auburn Leadership Institute. Smith has played a major role in helping the rest of the equestrian team get involved and give back to the community.
“As a member of the team I have enjoyed taking on a leadership role and organizing different community service events for the team,” said Smith. “Our coaches really enjoy seeing us do well and we really enjoy getting involved in the community and helping out. We do feel a sense of pride in it, but we do it to give back to the community.”
*names have been omitted to protect the privacy and safety of the family
By Grace Bolin