Leah Black, left, and Katie Kennedy, front and center, are two of the co-founders of Snacks for the Soul, which created a space of calm and gratitude for student athletes at CSULB. Photos are courtesy Christine DeRoos.

During a trip to Portugal last summer, Christine DeRoos sat in a park, taking a moment to herself while looking at her new surroundings. In that moment, she enjoyed a feeling of peace and relaxation that had often eluded her back at home.

At the end of summer, DeRoos returned to Long Beach with an idea. Not just for her, but one that could be shared with her friends and teammates in the Long Beach State beach volleyball program.

That’s when DeRoos, along with teammates Katie Kennedy and Leah Black, decided to launch Snacks for the Soul. Their plan was a relatively simple one: to hold a weekly get-together for women athletes at Long Beach State, allowing them to congregate at a local park for yoga, meditation, journaling, deep conversation and (of course) snacks.

“I was just kind of sitting with the idea of creating an intentional place to rest and find solace outside of the expectations of my sport and school and social life,” explained DeRoos, a junior studying sports psychology at CSULB. “I didn’t really know how to navigate these difficult emotions while balancing the stress of school and my personal life, so I wanted to create a space where people could feel safe and feel rested.”

When DeRoos first arrived in Long Beach from her hometown of Carlsbad, she says it was a challenging adjustment to life as a college athlete. She sat out from volleyball her first year which gave her more time to acclimate to her new surroundings, but when she began playing regularly in her second year, she felt the stress begin to mount.

“I think back to the high school version of Christine, who was just bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, so stoked to go to college, right? The best years of my life,” she recalled. “And then I get here and it’s a slap to the face realizing I’m balancing a million different things, and I want to be successful in everything … My freshman and sophomore years, it just felt like one hurdle after another trying to figure out the pacing of everything, and how to maintain being a good human who also seeks excellence in their craft. I think the learning curve was really big for me.”

Yes, there are lots of snacks at Snacks for the Soul. Photos are courtesy Christine DeRoos.

Since September, just after the start of the fall semester, DeRoos and athletes from various other teams have met up every Tuesday, taking an hour out of their weeks to connect, relax and talk through the various challenges they’re facing.

“The pandemic and COVID was really hard on everyone, and I think it’s really come out in the last few years in mental health with college athletes,” said Rachael Kowalchick, a junior on the women’s water polo team. “There’s just a ton of pressure and we don’t realize it because we’re isolated in our own little bubbles. Snacks for the Soul is an outlet for us. We can take a break, get together and share our experiences. We’re able to build off of each other and support one another.”

Katie Kennedy, a senior on the beach volleyball and indoor women’s volleyball team, has been using Snacks for the Soul as her independent study project while pursuing her master’s degree in sport psychology.

“I think the most rewarding thing has been finding that sense of community,” Kennedy said. “We all come together and just relate to each other and we can get things off our chest. Then we use yoga and breath work and mindfulness as a way to recover and take our minds off everything and just have a sense of calm and relaxation.”

Throughout the experience, Kennedy has been writing reflection papers for grad school, and she’s noticed how Snacks for the Soul has benefited her on the court. Having a scheduled time each week reserved for rest and recovery has led to an improved mindset out on the court.

“It just kind of resets you and refreshes your mental state, because when you’re doing the same stuff every day, you can feel burnt out,” she explained. “When we find moments of joy on those Tuesdays, the next day at practice I feel a little bit lighter, more refreshed, and more grateful. And that’s another activity that we try to do every time is to express as much gratitude as we can. Yes, this is hard for student-athletes, it’s a grind, but we are so lucky to be here. We’re so grateful for each other and all that we’re given.”

That sense of gratitude has been a common theme during Snacks for the Soul meetings, and the core group is hoping to spread that feeling to more of their teammates and fellow athletes in the athletic department. DeRoos says she’s gotten to connect with members of the faculty, as well as some of the student support staff in the LBSU athletic department and academic center.

The group also has plans to incorporate more journal prompts during its meetings for additional self-reflection, and DeRoos says she hopes to have a potluck with all the members at the end of each month.

Ultimately, for the athletes who’ve participated, they’ve gained a renewed sense of gratitude for the challenges and pitfalls that come with being a collegiate athlete. In just an hour per week for the last two months, Snacks for the Soul has already made a lasting impact, and DeRoos has a renewed appreciation for her time in college—and as an athlete—understanding that both are fleeting.

“I always have to remind myself it’s so short and I want to enjoy my hard days.” she said. “I have pretty cool problems, you know? To wake up at 6 a.m. and lift weights with my best friends, and be sore from this really rigorous sport, and to stretch my mind. I really enjoy my problems, and it’s about having an abundance mindset versus a scarcity mindset.”

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