By Gayne Kalustian ’17
For the typical college athlete, striking the balance between athletics and academics can prove a challenge. At times, it can be seemingly impossible. For right-handed pitcher Adam Charnin-Aker ’16, tackling the two simply wasn’t enough.
In the midst of his first season on the mound for Dartmouth, Charnin-Aker conceptualized, created and instituted the program Dartmouth Feeding Neighbors to reduce food waste at Dartmouth, and also use perfectly good food from the campus and select Hanover restaurants to fight hunger in the Upper Valley.
“No matter where you go, there are going to be people who need food, and for me, that’s just not acceptable,” Charnin-Aker said. “I don’t have a specific number of how much food we need to get or that type of thing. Just … if you can affect somebody’s life every week, that’s enough for me.”
The idea for the program materialized one night when Charnin-Aker ventured into town for a late-night snack only to discover he was seconds too late to satisfy his craving, despite seeing leftovers from the day still on display. A conversation with the cashier brought to light one apparently inevitable, but unfortunate, truth about the food industry: the food from today that can’t be sold tomorrow (but still is safe to eat) becomes unnecessary garbage.
He left that night confronted with a problem, he said, but remained unsure of how to take action. Charnin-Aker went home over winter interim, considering the ways in which he could improve Dartmouth and its connection to the local community, and jumped into action during the first days of winter term.
Charnin-Aker lined up meetings with Dartmouth Dining Services (DDS) to see about the feasibility of the program. DDS agreed to take part if he could set up the infrastructure, and, put to the task, he didn’t disappoint. Charnin-Aker immediately met with the Council on Student Organizations (COSO), the Tucker Foundation, Jennifer Fontaine — the Director of the Upper Valley Haven — and Jeff Hastings, a Tuck graduate in West Lebanon who had a similar idea of connecting restaurants with local food shelters. Hastings became one of the biggest benefactors for the infant program, according to vice president of Dartmouth Feeding Neighbors Sumner Kilmarx ’16, lending experience and guidance to the two sophomores who had little more than an idea and unwavering commitment to make a difference.
Charnin-Aker took the idea to his on-campus networks to gain support, most notably his fraternity, Chi Heorot, and Kilmarx. Charnin-Aker’s obvious commitment to the program, Kilmarx said, has helped drive Dartmouth Feeding Neighbors to its growing success despite confronting new challenges each week while trying to get the program off the ground.
“He’s really passionate about it,” Kilmarx said. “Every time we get working, he gets really into it, and he wants to get all the details down because this is his baby. Every time he goes out to the Haven, he always wants to spend extra time there, taking tours and meeting people.”
Charnin-Aker’s willingness to tackle obstacles as he encounters them began long before his matriculation at Dartmouth. He committed himself to baseball at a young age, ferried toward the sport by his father, Jack Aker, an 11-year veteran of the big leagues who accumulated a 2.23 ERA with 31 saves in three-plus seasons as a reliever for the New York Yankees. His father, Charnin-Aker said, has shaped him both on and off the mound, influenced by the family’s Potawatomi roots.
“Every summer, my dad would go to New Mexico and teach baseball to at risk Native Americans on the reservations,” he said. “I would usually go with him. I was just a little kid, but it was still a great time. It was important to instill into me and these kids that staying in school is very important, and playing baseball is a good way to do that.”
In 1997, President Bill Clinton honored Aker with the Giant Steps Award for two decades of community service before he and Jane Charnin-Aker, his wife and Charnin-Aker’s mother, dedicated themselves to raising Charnin-Aker and his two older brothers, Joshua and Matthew. The family moved around throughout Charnin-Aker’s childhood, seeking out the best combination of athletics and academics for the two younger brothers, both promising athletes in swimming and baseball. Matthew Aker, a half-brother, played for Ole Miss before coaching at Greensboro College.
“My parents were completely devoted to the success of me and my brothers for which I am eternally grateful,” Charnin-Aker said. “I don’t know if I would be here today if it wasn’t for them. They always put us before everything and never hesitated once. It was always, ‘If you want to do it, we’ll do it,’ and of course I wanted to do it because I love baseball.”
They eventually settled back in Arizona for the start of Charnin-Aker’s freshman year of high school where he played for Chapparal High School in Scottsdale, Arizona — the state champion his junior and senior years — and a scout team. He felt his most competitive outing came when he played the instructional team for the Arizona Diamondbacks in his junior year of high school before tearing his ulnar collateral ligament as a senior. Despite receiving calls from several programs early in the recruiting season, including Dartmouth, the tear had devastating effects on his recruitment potential, leaving him without any Division I offers.
After having Tommy John surgery, Charnin-Aker was accepted to Dartmouth on academic merit without any athletic backing and hoped to be able to train his way back to walking on to the team. Within two weeks of starting practice after just under a year in recovery, the righty lost feeling in his ring and pinky fingers, causing him to withdraw from his freshman fall.
After spending several more months rehabilitating his elbow and interning at a law firm, he came back to try to throw in winter before the spring season, confronted unexpectedly with an altogether different issue: a partially torn labrum and fraying in his rotator cuff. The surgeons told him the compounded effects of having the two surgeries left him only a fifty-fifty chance of pitching again. With the help and support of his family and friends, he was able to weather the storm and spend months — for the second time in his young life — rehabilitating his arm.
Finally able to pitch this past spring, Charnin-Aker was assigned to start against the University of Nebraska Omaha during the team’s spring trip. Unable to bottle his apprehension, he texted his brother Joshua in New York to let him know that he could stream the game the next day to watch him take his first start since his junior year of high school.
“I texted him and told him, ‘Hey I’m starting tomorrow if you want to watch the live stats or something,’” he said. “When I was warming up in the bullpen before the game, my brother walked through the gate. He flew out that morning to watch me. It was one of the coolest games ever.”
And even though his mother suffers from a debilitating illness that makes traveling next to impossible, his parents made the long journey from Scottsdale to Hanover later in the season to watch their son continue to bounce back from years of injury.
In that first start against UNO, with two years of rust on his arm, Charnin-Aker surrendered just two runs in six innings of work. Just a couple of weeks later, he made his first delivery with Dartmouth Feeding Neighbors and has taken steps to join the Food Recovery Network, a program that supports college students in similar endeavors.
Nick Lombardi ’15, a brother in Chi Heorot and third baseman on the baseball, said that Charnin-Aker’s initiative in the house, dugout and community last season was unparalleled. “I remember he was talking about [Dartmouth Feeding Neighbors] early on and I said, ‘Yeah, go for it man, that is a great idea.’ He’s always sending out e-mails. He just wants to help out in the community around him; he’s a leader in that respect. He’ll do something just for the good of someone else rather than himself.”
Since the first delivery of 51 pounds, Dartmouth Feeding Neighbors has delivered 2,342 pounds of food to the Upper Valley Haven, the bulk of which comes from Dartmouth’s Class of 1953 Commons. But every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, that number continues to grow. He continues to receive support through donations that have gone toward buying reusable Plexiglas containers to make the program more sustainable and limit costs.
Going forward, Dartmouth Feeding Neighbors is looking to collect more food every week and open more lines of connection between other dining halls, such as those in Tuck and the Upper Valley. And leading this young organization is a president that stands as living, pitching, breathing proof of the good that can come from the craving for a late night snack.