Building Homes With Athletes So Athletes Build Character

Athletics are often presented as a crucible of character formation, but empirical studies (as well as glaring moral failures of celebrity athletes) suggest that sports do not always promote virtues. (Schnitker & Houltberg, 2016)


Ben Houltberg speaks to a group of athletes on the topic of “Performance and Purpose.”

Thrive faculty member Dr. Benjamin Houltberg knows something about athletes. An NCAA Track & Field National Qualifier himself, he has conducted retreats for elite coaches and athletes and, further, served as an accredited chaplain for the US team at the World Track and Field Championships.

Houltberg knows that the intensely competitive world of these athletes can build character or undermine it. Emotional health and thriving require that young athletes develop an identity not based in their athletic performance but in a purpose larger than themselves. They must experience life as having a greater meaning that includes supportive relationships and contributing to their community, giving towards a greater good.

With this conviction, Houltberg worked with the founder, Guy East, to create Hope Sports in March 2015. Hope Sports is a nonprofit organization that takes teams of athletes on short-term service trips to Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. In their first year, over 200 professional and Olympic athletes participated on teams that built 11 houses, each in one weekend. Every home built for a family that may live on only $5 a day makes a radical difference for the children’s education, safety, and physical, social, and emotional health.

HopeSports-kids-paintingThe members of a build team meet and work alongside the family whose house they are building. Thus, as their website says, the project “helps athletes see the world beyond athletic success and encourages them to be people who make a difference in the world” (HopeSports.org).

Houltberg’s and East’s overarching purpose in these weekend build trips is for athletes to build relationships with one another as a team and to develop a purpose-based identity. Basing their identity in a meaningful sense of purpose rather than in their own athletic performance promotes the resiliency and character needed for long-term success in life. According to their self-description, “we aim to provide a transformational experience that unites athletes around a shared purpose of serving the poor that can become a catalyst for athletes to impact their families, teams and communities for positive change” (HopeSports.org).

HopeSports-erecting-wallAs word spreads about the positive impact these projects have on the athletic team as a group and on the individual athletes, the work of Hope Sports is expanding. They are beginning to include community and high school sports teams. They are also adding new locations and projects and a leadership program to engage athletes following a build.

Watch this 1-minute video of a build team including Ben!

US Speedskating Team Build – Short Version