When Virginia Elena Carta graduated from Duke in May, her accolades as an athlete spoke for themselves, but her greatest legacy at Duke has come off the fairway.
Earning an individual NCAA championship her freshman year and helping to lead her team to its seventh title her senior year makes Carta one of the most decorated collegiate golfers for Duke ever. However, even after inking herself in the annals of Blue Devil history, the Udine, Italy native has managed to make her presence at Duke felt well after graduation through charity and community engagement.
Three years ago, Carta created the Birdies for Babies fundraiser, linking golf success through the women's and men's teams to donations for the Duke Children's Neonatal and Pediatric Intensive Care Units. After raising $10,500 in its debut year and more than doubling the amount to $26,322.75 in Carta's senior year, both Duke golf teams look to continue the former Blue Devil's legacy through community engagement and donations after kicking off the 2019-20 Birdies for Babies Sep. 11 at the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club.
"Virginia was a respectable senior, very admirable," sophomore Gina Kim said. "She has done so many things in her career to the point where I wonder if she had enough sleep. It's a huge honor, not just for me but for our whole team, to represent so many people and keep continuing Virginia's legacy. We're hoping to make a lot more birdies, come off with some success and bring some hardware back home, but mostly just raise some money for the little kids and little babies at the Duke Children's hospital."
The inception of the charity came during Carta's junior season. George Grody, a professor in Duke's Markets and Management studies program and current board member of the National Board of Advisors for the Duke Children’s Hospital, already had connections to the former Blue Devil through his past experience as a special assistant to the athletic director. A mentor for countless student groups and startups for marketing and fundraising, it was only natural for Grody to be Carta's first point of contact to get her fundraising idea off the ground. From there, Carta was put into contact with the Senior Associate Director of Duke Cancer Institute and Duke Children's Development, Debbie Taylor, and Birdies for Babies was launched.
Birdies for Babies raises money through donation pledges, where donors can pledge to give a certain amount of money for every birdie, eagle, albatross and hole-in-one the team logs through the season. With the addition of the men's team to the fundraiser in 2018, the teams combined for 1,281 birdies and $26,322.75 for the infants in the Duke hospital nursery and intensive care unit.
"All the credit should go to Virginia for [the fundraising]," men's golf senior Chandler Eaton said. "It's really cool to hear that playing good golf helps people. That's the case at the next level with the PGA tour—they give back—so we're trying to do the same thing. You realize that you can have an impact doing something like this. A lot of times you feel like you're on an island, where you're out here working, so it's great that you can do something to help people with our sport. It's the greatest gift you can give."
Although Carta is no longer part of the team, Duke women's golf still looks to carry on her legacy. Junior Hannah O'Sullivan and freshman Erica Shepherd have taken up the torch as the primary spokespeople for the team's efforts in Birdies for Babies. And with the addition of the men's team to the fundraiser, the Blue Devils hope to grow their charity work even more.
'A big excitement'
Fundraisers like Birdies for Babies look to work around the time constraints some athletes may have by directly integrating charity into the sports they already devote much of their time to, and other sports have taken note.
Taylor—a former women's basketball coach at William and Mary familiar with the time constraints athletes face—has worked with the Duke baseball team to create K's for Kids' Cancer, using the same model as Birdies for Babies to tie donations to every strikeout the Blue Devils pitchers record during the season. Through initiatives like these, Taylor hopes to increase the overlap between student-athletes and their communities inside and around the university.
"As college coaches, we're always looking to find ways to get players involved in their community and ways for them to give back," Taylor said. "We started with golf, and George [Grody] worked with [Duke baseball coach Chris Pollard] to create K's for Kids' Cancer. While this program focuses on babies in the nursery and intensive care babies, baseball works with pediatric cancer kids.
"We continue to grow our relationship with Duke athletics and different sports programs, and bring more student-athletes in and help them learn to give back and want to give back, and they get really excited about it. Virginia used to email me about how many birdies they made, and there's just a big excitement about being part of something bigger than you."
For now, the women's and men's teams will continue to use what Carta created as not only a way to give back, but also motivation to excel in their sport. And although neither team has a running tally, both see the fundraiser as a way to build in some friendly competition.
"Obviously, since we both love playing golf and it's all about competition, why not?" Kim said on tallying birdies between the two teams. "We'd love to try. I guess friendly competition is a way to motivate us. We can definitely try that. I think we're going to beat them though."
Past her accomplishments on the green, Carta has created a fundraiser that has a profound effect on the lives of those in Duke's Childrens Hospital. With her work continuing past her graduation, the former Blue Devil has created not just a lasting legacy for herself, but a framework for others in Duke Athletics to elevate their sport to something bigger than what's on the field.
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