UA softball team's letters a hit in NYC

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Saturday, May 2, 2020
Arkansas coach Courtney Deifel talks to players during a game against Auburn on Sunday, May 5, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Arkansas coach Courtney Deifel talks to players during a game against Auburn on Sunday, May 5, 2019, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas softball team hasn't competed on the diamond since a doubleheader sweep of Kansas, both games won in walk-off fashion, on March 10.

But Coach Courtney Deifel has found another way for her players to engage in "competition" during the coronavirus lull while serving a cause beyond themselves.

For the past two weeks the Razorbacks have split into five groups to engage in a note- and letter-writing campaign that is scheduled to end Friday. The letters of encouragement and thanks are delivered almost daily in New York City, distributed to nurses and doctors who are serving on the front lines in city-owned hospitals in New York, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Scott Sloyer of Lawrence, Kan., receives and distributes the messages to the 800 health care workers -- mostly nurses who have come in from all parts of the country -- who have taken over the Park Central Hotel. He said he was hired by a staffing agency in Kansas City to help organize the visiting nurses.

"One of his jobs is to sort their mail, and when they get off their shift, greet them with a snack, a smile and their mail," Deifel said. "He had mentioned ... that you could just sense the sadness from them when they didn't get mail from home or receive mail that day because that was their piece of positivity."

Within days of arriving in New York City in early March for an eight-week stint, Sloyer had mentioned to his friend Courtney Freet in Lawrence that the health care workers -- who put in 12-hour shifts at 17 hospitals around the city -- needed uplifting messages.

Freet reached out to a group of friends nicknamed the "Mom Squad" around Lawrence, and those women had their kids draw pictures and write notes to send to the hot zone in New York. Sloyer plastered nearly 100 of those messages all over the elevators in the Park Central.

That campaign was documented in a story in the Lawrence Journal-World on April 24.

Freet also challenged her former "Mom Squad" friends in Fayetteville -- where her husband Chris had been a senior member of the UA department of athletics before taking a job at the University of Kansas -- to do the same. Deifel, whose friendship with Chris Freet goes back to her time as a graduate assistant at the University of Oklahoma, heard about the initiative and brought it up to her team during a weekly video chat session.

"We're looking for ways to compete, because our team has a huge competitive nature, right?" Deifel said. "So they're missing that competitive piece. But they also have just huge hearts for people and giving back and making a difference. So we kind of posted to them as our next little team competition that we split the team up to five smaller groups and they have taken off."

Sloyer began to choke up when asked about what the messages of inspiration and gratitude -- such as "You are loved. You are cherished. You are phenomenal," written by Arkansas senior Aly Manzo -- have meant to the health care professionals.

"We're talking about 25-year-old nurses, and some of them, the worse thing they've seen in their ER is somebody that fell off their bike," Sloyer said. "And now they're zipping up 10 bodies a day -- a day -- into body bags.

"They come back and tell me these stories. I tell people when they ask me what I'm doing up there, I say, 'I'm just supposed to be a soft place for them to land.'

"So what do the notes mean? You see it makes them smile, it reminds them of home and getting called a 'hero,' and it reminds them a lot of their own kids.

"Coming from grade-schoolers or teenagers or the Arkansas softball team, it's important. Every little thing is magnified up here."

Manzo, who is staying in Fayetteville, might have the team lead. As of Thursday afternoon, Manzo's count was at 230, including some messages that needed to be sent that night.

"I tried to start out by doing at least 20 a day, and then when I hit 100 letters, I was like, 'Wow, now I actually want to hit 200 letters,' so that day I wrote I think 50," Manzo said. "I at least try to do 20 a day, and if I write more it's awesome. But I am still trying to juggle school and finals and all that stuff."

The players are not writing to specific individuals, so the messages are generic.

"I see them getting off their shift, exhausted, like they're just worn out from their long shift," Manzo said. "Then I see them looking in their mailbox and grabbing out one of my letters or one of my teammate's letters and instantly getting a smile on their face. And it makes them realize that what they're doing is valued and appreciated so much."

Junior Danielle Gibson is among the team leaders with a count of 147 letters as of Thursday afternoon, with another 13 ready to go. However, with her California-based family taking a vacation for a few days at Lake Havasu on the border with Arizona in the southern part of the state, Gibson said she'll have to hunt for a post office and stamps, or wait until she returns home to send the ones she's generating this weekend.

"I try to do a different prompt for each one," Gibson said. "I don't want to write the same thing. I think that keeps it a little more personable.

"These are people from all around the country who have come out of retirement or have left their own work facility to travel to New York, just to try and handle this crisis as a group and together. I think that's something so brave and so courageous."

Many of the players started by mailing individual messages or letters, but they soon found out bulk was better. Deifel told the players, whose groups include members of the coaching staff, not to let the price of stamps or envelopes prevent them from participating, and that she would provide those materials if needed.

"I did stamp like the first 20 I think I sent," Manzo said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is so much. My mailman probably thinks I'm crazy.' "

The messages provide rays of sunshine into what Sloyer said are "not that many good days."

"Not that many good outcomes," he said. "We're servicing the 17 city-owned hospitals. These aren't wealthy private hospitals."

Sloyer passed along these responses from the health care workers:

"It just so reminds me of home," said Melody Bearskin, a respiratory therapist from Hot Springs.

"It's just so fun to get in the elevator and read a different one. Sends me off to work with a smile," said Amie Burrow, a nurse practitioner from Cave City.

Those two are among the 4,000 nurses and other health care professionals set up by a Kansas City staffing agency who are lodging in five hotels around New York.

Sloyer, whose 26-year-old son Tyler accompanied him to New York and is also helping, estimated 80% of the workers re-upped after their original 21-day contracts were done.

Deifel said the initiative to reach out to the health care workers sprung up from the responsibility she and her staff felt to help the team remain engaged during the pandemic.

"They've seen the effects of it, the wide ranges of effects," Deifel said. "We were just kind of talking about the dire situation that New York is in, and we have a chance to make a difference from Arkansas or from wherever we are with people ... who went to serve the people in New York.

"So they've embraced it and they just keep writing, which is pretty awesome. ... Like Aly Manzo has written 200 herself. She's the coach of her team and she's like, 'I'm pretty sure I'm addicted to writing these letters. The feeling they get from doing it, just doing their small part, is pretty huge."

Sports on 05/02/2020

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