Upon hearing the name Darien Moran, Kayla Gross smiles and says, “my kiddo.”
Thanks to Badgers Give Back and Make-A-Wish Wisconsin, Moran, a cancer patient and high school sophomore, received a Badger-themed room makeover about a year-and-a-half ago. He still receives homework help and communicates with Gross on a weekly basis.
“[Moran] has become part of my family,” Gross said. “I can’t really put into words what the relationship that Darien and I have built really means to me.”
Referred to by Moran, other community members and coworkers as “Mama Kayla” or “Mama K,” Gross plays a motherly role in leading the UW-Madison Athletic Department community outreach efforts.
The nickname “Mama Kayla” came from Gross bringing in elementary school children to engage with their Badger heroes and from also being a support system for the student-athletes who may have never visited a hospital’s intensive care unit or spoken in front of 400 kids.
“They know I’m there to support them, and be there for them in those moments,” Gross said. “That means a lot to me.”
While her official title is community relations coordinator, Kayla Gross is also known as the creator and caretaker of the Badgers Give Back program.
“Kayla is Badgers Give Back,” said Community Relations Assistant Abigail Waldo. “When you look at Kayla and realize how far Badgers Give Back has come, you just keep pushing. I guess that’s what Kayla might represent most: progress and the determination to keep pushing Badgers Give Back to be better, both for our student-athletes and the community.”
No one would pretend that Gross does this job by herself, but she is the first one to shine the spotlight on the interns and staff who make Badgers Give Back function.
“I might be the face of Badgers Give Back, I might be quoted and whatnot, but they are really what makes this place run,” Gross said. “Every single one of them gives so much more in terms of heart and dedication to this program than I could really ask for.”
It is that very dedication to the cause, humility for the credit and a continued determination to change more and more lives that enabled Badgers Give Back to be what it is today.
If you took a snapshot of where the program is today and showed it to the 2008 version of Gross, who was beginning to plan the program, she would have laughed at you in disbelief.
The lion’s share of that sentiment comes from how impressed Gross has been by the commitment from the student-athletes, who already had plenty on their plates before volunteering hours and hours to community service.
“[Badgers Give Back] has exceeded every expectation,” Gross said. “[The student-athletes] didn’t have to buy in. There’s no requirement for them to volunteer. So they could have easily listened and said ‘I’m too busy’ or ‘I have other things to do.’ But across the board, they have bought in.”
Gross still does see this program progressing. She said she would like to build more partnerships within UW-Madison like she has with the School of Education, which helped improve the Bookin’ It With Bucky program.
Gross said she wants to continue, “leveraging all the resources we have here as a university to really make an impact on our fans and state at large.”
In true motherly fashion, Gross’s enjoyment and enrichment comes second to that of ensuring the same for the community members and student-athletes, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“While they’ve been making little kids’ dreams come true all across the state, they’ve been helping me live mine,” Gross said. “And that’s... that’s profound.”