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WVU football unleashes the power of service for Hearts of Gold

Just before 2 p.m. on Monday, dogs in training with the Hearts of Gold program waited patiently as two large buses pulled into the WVU Animal Husbandry Farm on Stewartstown Road in Morgantown.

Hearts of Gold dogs are trained to support veterans who need assistance with anything from post-traumatic stress to amputations, essentially serving those who served. The organization’s slogan is “unleashing the power of service.”

On Monday, however, the dogs were the ones receiving a service as the entire WVU football team stepped off the buses ready to get to work for the team’s community service project.

“We appreciate the support from all the fans far and near and this is a way that we try to show our appreciation,” said Rasheed Marshall, director of player relations with WVU football. “As Mountaineer football players we try to do our part by getting out into the community and giving back.

“Coach (Neal) Brown is huge on us being engaged in the community and doing our part to show our appreciation to Morgantown and the state of West Virginia for coming out week in and week out supporting us,” Marshall continued. “We try to do our part by getting out here. This is a teamwide event and it’s fun to be here today.”

Dr. Jean Meade, with Hearts of Gold, said the players would be helping the organization get ready for an expansion of its facility.

“The university, over the past seven years, has had funding from the Department of Defense to place service dogs with veterans,” she explained. “That has allowed us to expand our staff, expand the number of dogs we can train, and in the past two years start our own breeding program, so this will allow us to have a larger number of dogs in training. We also partnered with FCI (Federal Correctional Institution) Morgantown, which started with veteran inmates, and they help to train dogs there as well, so it just increases capacity.”

Meade said the expansion was in large part thanks to a large anonymous donation and the donations received regularly from community members and other private donors.

Zack Fincher, assistant director of WVU Chambers Elite Climbers, who helped arrange the service day with assistance from Kristi Wood-Turner, director of WVU Center for Community Engagement, said he was told Hearts of Gold could use some help at the farm and it sounded like a great opportunity for the team service project.

Players grabbed shovels, paintbrushes, hoes and wheelbarrows and got to work adding a new coat of paint to the kennel building, digging out an area and filling in gravel for a handicapped parking area, filling in holes inside a fenced-in yard area, and generally helped around the facility. Of course, many of the players couldn’t help but break away from their work to give the dogs some well-deserved pets.

“It’s a great opportunity for Hearts of Gold to have the support from the football team. I think it’s really neat that they can provide service not only to a nonprofit, but a nonprofit that then serves veterans in return,” said Dr. Matthew Wilson, professor of animal sciences at WVU.

Wilson explained that Hearts of Gold started out as a class at WVU. The original intent was to teach students to train dogs — dogs that had a higher purpose.

“It was really about helping students understand service and giving back,” he said. “So, to have the football team and athletics be giving back to support an organization that’s about giving back, I think that just really amplifies the work they are doing today. It’s not that they are just supporting an organization, they are supporting an organization whose mission is giving back. So, for us to have a service activity happening here outside is really neat.”

Meade said the combined efforts of both groups shows how local organizations and WVU can have a mutually beneficial and symbiotic relationship.

“I think this partnership between a community-based nonprofit and the university is a great example of how we can expand the work of either by working seamlessly together and it really is a seamless partnership.”