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Alabama recruit spearheads tornado relief efforts in Tuscaloosa

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Unlike most high school prospects who visit their chosen colleges to tour campus or get to know their future coaches and teammates, Alabama-bound guard Jaren Sina had a less traditional purpose for his trip to Tuscaloosa last week.

Sina and a group of close to 30 others from his high school in New Jersey spent five days in the tornado-ravaged city assisting with relief efforts.

They folded and sorted clothes by size so the garments could be distributed to the needy. They cleared the debris-ridden plot of land where a Brookwood man's house once stood. And they helped a displaced Tuscaloosa family move recently donated furniture and appliances into its new apartment.

"Once you're there, it's completely different than what you see on TV," said Sina, one of the top point guards in the Class of 2013. "There's so much destroyed and so much work left to be done, so we as a group tried to do what could just to make this place a little better."

Participating in tornado relief efforts only solidified Sina's fondness for the Alabama program and the Tuscaloosa community. Whereas other prospects who select a college three years before they can enroll often renege on that commitment if a more appealing offer comes along or their relationship with the coach sours, Sina cannot envision playing anywhere else besides Alabama.

"The trip strengthened the tie between him and the school," said his father, Mergen Sina. "A lot of people question early commitments and whether Jaren might change his mind, but now Jaren has an even stronger personal connection with the school. He can't wait to get down there."

The idea for the community service trip popped into the minds of Mergen and Jaren when St. Bernard's School received an invitation to attend Alabama's team camp in mid-June. They had watched on TV in disbelief the afternoon of April 27 as a deadly mile-wide tornado ripped through the community Jaren hoped to one day call home, so they decided to arrive in Tuscaloosa a few days early to help in any way they could. {YSP:MORE}

Only Sina and his teammates on the St. Bernard's basketball team may have made the trip were it not for the school's community outreach coordinator Peter Schmidt suggesting they invite other students to participate. The students raised more than $12,000 to finance the trip via a "Baskets for 'Bama" shoot-a-thon fundraiser in which each of the kids sought out sponsors willing to shell out a few dollars for every 3-point shot they could make one Sunday afternoon.

If any students were previously unaware of the extent of the damage in Tuscaloosa County, it hit them as they stared out the window at debris-strewn residential blocks and shops reduced to rubble during a bus tour of some of the most devastated regions. Later, the group had the chance to meet some of the families who lost property or loved ones while working on projects given to them by several of the Tuscaloosa-based tornado relief organizations.

"It meant an awful lot to the kids to see how gracious the people were," Schmidt said. "Everywhere we went in Tuscaloosa, shopkeepers would come up to them and thank them for what they were doing. I think it made a tremendous impact on all of the kids that they left with a feeling of camaraderie with people who live 1,000 miles away from where they do."

No student felt more of a bond with the Tuscaloosa community than Sina, who two years from now intends to be taking his first summer session classes at Alabama.

Last January, Sina selected the Crimson Tide over Big East programs Seton Hall, Rutgers and St. John's because he believed his affinity for the campus and the coaching staff outweighed Tuscaloosa's distance from his New Jersey home. Now that he's spent another week helping the community rebuild after the tornado, he's all the more certain of his choice.

"I was 100 percent on going to Alabama before but this puts me over the top," he said. "Not even in terms of basketball but in terms of the people I've met down there in the city alone. I know it's the right place for me."

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