Philanthropy Playmakers Feature: Christina Hovestadt

Christina Hovestadt
Executive Director | Rashad Jennings Foundation

“I have a lot of trust in Rashad and respect him immensely, especially his leadership and heart. Because of that, it really helps me to push the vision forward with excellence.”

Christina Hovestadt is a nonprofit leader in sports philanthropy, writer and public speaker.
Currently, Christina is the Executive Director of the Rashad Jennings Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit led by NFL Running Back and Season 24 of Dancing With The Stars front-runner, Rashad Jennings.

Her story didn't start there, though. As a former collegiate volleyball player & current USAV coach, Christina's passion to pour into youth began when she realized the impact that one coach and teacher can have on a student. Christina worked in television news for three years and also served as an Event Coordinator for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. But, as life would have it, Christina happened to stumble back on the volleyball court and into the classroom - but this time, coaching and teaching the next generation at a local high school in Florida. From passionately teaching students who couldn't pass the state standardized assessment in reading, to showing tough love and motivating players on the court who desperately needed a mentor, encouraging youth quickly became a passion that turned global when she began her work with the Rashad Jennings Foundation.

The Rashad Jennings Foundation's mission is to inspire youth by making education fun, providing mentorship for individual success and to promote health and fitness worldwide. The RJF creates programs for NFL players from around the league who's serve as ambassadors to give back to their communities.
In the past two years, the Rashad Jennings and the RJF have been recognized by the NFLPA as a finalist for the Byron "Whizzer" White award at the Super Bowl. The BWW award is the most prestigious award given to players that demonstrate the highest level of community service in their communities and hometowns. In the past two years, the RJF has reached over 30 thousand students through their literacy program, The Reading Challenge.

When she's not branding programs for NFL athletes around all 32 teams or pouring into youth through the RJF, Christina is passionate about being a voice for the youth and public speaking on all things leadership, sport philanthropy, youth advocacy and empowerment. She is also passionate about empowering women, so she created The Set Apart Women (TheSetApartWomen.org), a community of women determined to live their lives on purpose.

Though she has had the opportunity to speak on many platforms in the sports industry, and the opportunity to speak in schools, in locker rooms and in board rooms, Christina's message is consistent: Live intentionally and activate your life with purpose. She has been a trusted speaker at public and private schools around the nation, and has spoke on numerous panels. She has also served as a Keynote Speaker for a youth development program at Columbia University. A graduate of the University of North Florida, Christina majored in Communication with an emphasis in Public Relations.
Christina was named Top 30 Under 30 Future Leaders in Jacksonville, FL in 2013 and most recently received the "Top 30 Leading Women of Jacksonville" award in 2016. Christina was born and raised in Jacksonville, FL and currently resides in Lynchburg, VA, while traveling nationwide through her work in sport philanthropy.

Rashad Jennings is a running back in the National Football League, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. He’s beaten the odds to become an elite athlete and the Season 24 Dancing with The Stars champion. If this were the beginning and end of the story, it would be an incredible feat. The funny thing is that this doesn’t come close to describing the obstacles he’s had to overcome in his life.

Jennings grew up in Virginia where he had a lot of adversity during his childhood. He didn’t have a great relationship with his father because his dad smoked and drank too much. When he was young, Jennings went up to his father and asked him to stop smoking because he had asthma and got sick from all of the smoke. His dad replied, “Do you really think you’re going to make it to the NFL without drinking or smoking? No chance.” To this day, Jennings hasn’t had a sip of alcohol or smoked. As if all of that were not enough, Jennings also had a reading comprehension deficit.

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Growing up in Virginia meant this is where he started his football career in high school. “Played” is a loose term, because he didn’t play his first two years. Jennings was over 250 pounds and was an overweight player who only saw the field when four running backs and a wide receiver got hurt in a game. Jennings, who was an afterthought up until this point, scored four touchdowns in the game. It just so happened that a Tennessee scout was at the game to watch other players, however, he was impressed with the raw athletic ability displayed by Jennings. The scout asked Jennings what his GPA was, in which he replied, “0.6.” The scout said he needed to bump up his grades significantly in order to qualify for a scholarship in college. This was all the motivation Jennings needed, as he finally had someone outside of his family who believed in him. Jennings transferred to a new school so he could continue playing football and focus on his grades. His two older brothers, who played in the NFL, mentored Jennings and coached at the private Christian school for free so he could attend.

From there, he attended college at the University of Pittsburgh, where he set all types of team records. One day he got a call from his mother saying that his father had to have his leg amputated due to complications with his diabetes, but that she didn’t want to feel like he had to move closer to home. Jennings didn’t think twice – he transferred to Liberty University so he could be near his family. This is the type of man that Jennings is – always putting others ahead of himself.

When Jennings was a rookie in the NFL, he would go to elementary schools to speak to children on the team’s off-days. Jennings wanted to follow up with these children and continue the relationship, but many times, the team’s community relations department would have players go to different schools. This was the light bulb moment for Jennings, because he wanted to truly invest in these kids. It was at this time that he decided to create the Rashad Jennings Foundation. He based all of his programs and initiatives off of his real-life story. Today, the foundation is run in tandem by Jennings and Christina Hovestadt, his Executive Director.

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Hovestadt is one of the hardest working people in sports philanthropy. Her background is in reading education, which made her a perfect fit to be a part of the foundation. She’s tasked with leading all programming logistics and execution, being available for events as well as business development for the foundation. She wouldn’t have it any other way though; she and Jennings share a love for giving back. Since they’ve known each other for nine years, their mindsets are in sync with one another. The two share the same vision and heart for how to impact communities, while bringing others along with them. “I have a lot of trust in Rashad and respect him immensely, especially his leadership and heart. Because of that, it really helps me to push the vision forward with excellence,” Hovestadt said.

The foundation has three main pillars:

  1. The Reading Challenge

  2. The Locker Room Project

  3. Camp 180

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The Reading Challenge aims to impact elementary school students to improve literacy rates. It started when Jennings would go through the team locker room and garbage cans for used cleats or gear to incentivize children in schools to read. He would ask teammates to autograph the gear and then every time a student would pass a reading assessment, they would be entered into a drawing for a prize. What makes this initiative so unique is that the foundation has other NFL player ambassadors who brand these programs. For example, in Dallas, it is the Brice Butler Reading Challenge. The hope is to identify one player in each NFL city to be an ambassador for The Reading Challenge. Currently, the Rashad Jennings Foundation has ten teams on board after just opening the programs up to them three months ago. Each child is given a pledge card to say how much he or she will read and then at the end of the month the player ambassador goes to the school where they have a big party and hand out the incentives. This is a win-win for everyone involved because the athletes have an opportunity to give back to the local community and own a program.

Jennings provided a significant amount of capital in order to get the foundation up and running. Hovestadt continued, “It was so important to Rashad to get the programming right. This was our most important objective because we wanted to make a tangible impact and have the right structure in place. Now, we partner with corporate partners that are located in NFL cities and we’re able to pitch them to come on board along with a player ambassador.” Everywhere Jennings goes, he has been a leader in the locker room and in the community. This has made it easier for him to work with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and the league to identify a target list of corporate partners to fund the programs and initiatives. For example, Jennings is able to use his relationship with the NFLPA to be an asset for incoming rookies. Jennings can educate the new players and build a pipeline for his reading challenge.

According to Hovestadt, the biggest success is getting other athletes to buy into the foundation’s vision. “NFL players are given so many opportunities to give back and their time is so valuable. As a result, it's been so rewarding to hear that our ambassadors love having a program they can own. We're able to create a mutually beneficial relationship with the players. They have the peace of mind knowing that they are using their platform to give back to communities while they're out on the field perfecting their craft, because we are facilitating their programs for them. This model of programming has proven to be successful for the athletes, the students we reach and the foundation.”

At the end of the day, Hovestadt and Jennings both believe that their purpose is to rally people together for a cause greater than themselves. Once Jennings hangs up his cleats, he wants to push the foundation to new heights. Between the two of them, they want to bring people together to work towards a common goal. By building a network of individuals that work in conjunction with one another, the Rashad Jennings Foundation will impact the next generation of leaders and is sure to leave a legacy inside and outside of the lines of the football field.








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