- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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PORTLAND, Ore. -- For many college students, "Room and board" is just a line on each semester's bill. But through food and shelter, two of the most basic aspects of human existence, Kelsey Davis found an opportunity to make her world a better place.
All it took was some chicken noodle soup and a little purple paint.
As the goalkeeper for the University of Portland women's soccer team, Davis' task is fundamentally a simple one. Despite the ad hoc trigonometry with which she measures angles and aligns defenders on free kicks, and notwithstanding the instructions, encouragements and admonitions she offers with the fervor of an auctioneer on a caffeine binge, the position has one objective: Keep the ball out of the back of the net.
Few do that better than Davis, who finished the regular season ranked among NCAA leaders in save percentage and long ago established herself as one of her generation's top talents in net when she suited up for the United States in the 2004 Under-19 World Cup and 2006 Under-20 World Cup. But no matter what heights the Pilots reach with Davis in net, her contribution to the program will linger beyond her last save, living for at least the next five years within the purple walls of a room in a Ronald McDonald House.
When she arrived at Portland in 2006 after spending her freshman year at UCLA, Davis quickly seized on the chance to join teammates in cooking dinner for families staying at the Ronald McDonald House that sits a short drive from the school's campus on the north side of Portland. It is a charity with athletic origins; the first Ronald McDonald House opened in Philadelphia in 1974, thanks in large part to the efforts of former Philadelphia Eagles tight end Fred Hill. Formally organized as Ronald McDonald House Charities a decade later, the program has grown to include nearly 300 houses in 30 countries, all with the goal of providing support for the families of seriously ill or injured children.
The facility near Portland's Legacy Emanuel Children's Hospital has been open for 11 years and has 24 rooms available to families traveling from at least 50 miles away. Those who can afford it are able to make small donations in return, but there is no payment required, a godsend for those who otherwise would either camp out in the hospital waiting rooms or incur sizable bills at local hotels. The house has a full kitchen and dining room, free laundry facilities, a children's room with games and computers, and even a "clothing closet" for families who have no time to gather belongings in emergency medical situations. According to members of the staff, the average stay is eight days, but some families, many of whom come from as far away as Alaska, can be there for months at a time.
Originating with former Pilot Kristen Rogers in 2001, the tradition of Portland players visiting the Ronald McDonald House has been passed down from class to class -- Davis inherited the informal role of spearheading it from 2006 seniors Kari Evans, Rebecca Meierbachtol and Jennifer Tuttle. The work is strictly a student initiative, leaving Davis to coordinate with the staff at the Ronald McDonald House which evenings fit both the schedule there and the team's often hectic schedule (the Pilots try to go at least once a month in the spring and whatever the in-season schedule permits in the fall). Davis then shops for the groceries and checks with teammates to see who is able to go on a particular night.
"From being at this house and being involved and just learning more and more, and hearing different stories, it just truly is a wonderful place," said Davis, a junior on the field after redshirting in 2006 for national team commitments. "You know, their motto is 'This is the house that love built.' And that's so true because I feel like 98 percent of what is here is because of donation and because of people supporting it. It really is a community, and that is what is so special not only do families have a place -- a warm, comfortable place to stay with their children -- but they also have other families to work with and be supported by in times that aren't necessarily the best. And to be able to provide a place of peace and comfort for a family that is going through dark, dark times is amazing; it's an amazing opportunity and an amazing blessing on our part."
The Pilots are not quite ready for their own Food Network show -- culinary disaster was narrowly averted during a Halloween trip when it was noticed at the last minute that what was about to be added to the mashed potatoes was, in fact, sugar and not salt. And during that recent visit, when 15 players answered the call to cook, the kitchen often became more congested than the area's notoriously stop-and-go traffic. Yet the finished product -- on that night, roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, salad, bread and an assortment of pies (along with hot chocolate fixings that junior Janelle Jacka fretted nobody would notice) -- makes for an impressive and appetizing display.
It was during a visit this past spring when inspiration struck Davis, who had been searching for a way to build on the tradition and carry the team's involvement beyond occasional dinners. All the rooms at the Ronald McDonald House are available for adoption -- for $6,000, a group is able to decorate and furnish the room for a five-year period. And in touring some of the property beyond the kitchen, players noticed a distinct lack of purple.
"I think we were walking into a University of Oregon room, and it was just decked out in all the U of O stuff, all the Duck stuff and all their football stuff," Portland sophomore Keelin Winters said. "And Kelsey was like, 'How awesome would it be if we could get a Portland Pilots room?'"
Not surprisingly, Davis deflected credit, instead recalling that the initial suggestion came from Winters, who -- along with fellow sophomore Sophie Schmidt -- is poised to carry on organizing things when Davis graduates. Whatever the source, the seed had been planted. After talking to administrators at the Ronald McDonald House, Davis approached Portland coach Garrett Smith and the athletic department to see whether she could spearhead a fundraising drive. With their blessing, and the help of people such as Beth Connell in the school's marketing department, the drive took shape, with players working Portland's crowds this season for donations at men's games, kids taking shots on goal for a dollar at halftime and a silent auction during the final regular-season home game that put the effort over the top. So at some point after the season, with purple paint donated by the school's facilities department, the Pilots will ensure that at least some part of them remains in the house at all times.
Davis' voice easily carries the length of the field when she's in net. But off the field, the tall Californian speaks in a soft, almost raspy voice that allows her words to sound alternately wistful and hopeful. A theology major who would like to pursue a master's degree in peace studies or international development and work for the United Nations one day, she wears the faith that she says guides her less as a boldly lettered sweatshirt than as something hidden from view. At 21 years old, it's an impressive package.
"The first thing that I guess comes to my mind is Kelsey is just selfless," Winters said of Davis, whose motto is she'd rather go to bed exhausted and tired than with leftover energy. "If you ever have a problem, if you ever need to talk about anything with her, she's totally willing to help and give you advice on anything from school to soccer to personal life, everything like that. And just her taking up this Ronald McDonald mission I guess just characterizes her. She's just really selfless."
And this is only the beginning.
"The next phase is just continuing to cook dinner here and to love this community of people," Davis said while volunteering on Halloween. "It never really will stop, ever. It doesn't stop once we hit $6,000. I think we just continue progressing in different ways."
It's amazing what can be achieved by focusing on the simple things.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.