By Austin Siegel

One of the best center fielders in Chicago walks past Wrigley Field all the time.

Sometimes, when the Cubs are at home, the noise of the crowd carries down Addison Street towards the North Side Housing and Support Shelter, where Northwestern Softball’s Ayana Lindsey volunteers with Chicago HOPES for Kids, an organization that provides after-school programming to students experiencing homelessness in Chicago.

There’s a basketball court and an outdoor space where school-age children dart around on scooters; a classroom where students tackle reading comprehension and play games.

And there’s a key member of a Big Ten champion softball team in the middle of it all.

“Being a student-athlete at an academically rigorous place like Northwestern can be pretty time-consuming,” Lindsey said. “This has been a great way to take my mind off softball and lend a hand at a place that needs more people on the ground. It’s just so freeing because it lets me take a breath and view myself in a different light.”

Most Wildcat fans know Lindsey as part of a Northwestern Softball team that’s headed to the postseason once again this season, after the program’s third-straight Big Ten title.

When Northwestern begins the NCAA Tournament against Saint Francis (PA) on Friday night at 5:30pm CT (ESPN+) in the Austin Regional, it’s a safe bet that Lindsey will be penciled into the starting lineup.

She’s one of just six student-athletes to start every game for the Wildcats in 2024.



But Lindsey’s softball ability, from her team-leading three triples to multiple appearances on SportsCenter’s Top 10 this season, isn’t why Chicago HOPES for Kids Executive Director Rita Kahn has counted on Lindsey as one of the program’s volunteers.

“I think these kids look at her, someone who’s not much older than them, and they want to know her story and her path,” Kahn said. “How does she success academically? How did sports help support her future? I think her biggest impact comes from sharing her story.”

That story begins at Iowa City High School, where Lindsey was the kind of softball phenom who made the varsity team as an eighth grader.

Her school paper wrote a story on Lindsey and two other middle schoolers who made varsity that season, marveling at how a bunch of kids with braces and a passion for Smucker’s Uncrustables lifted the Little Hawks to their first winning season in a decade.

Lindsey drew on that experience as a first-year student-athlete at Northwestern in 2022, where she earned playing time on a team that reached the Women’s College World Series.

That same year, TrueNU launched as Northwestern’s first-ever NIL collective, with a focus on supporting non-profit and charitable partners throughout Chicagoland.

When Lindsey, now a junior in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern, approached TrueNU Executive Director Jacob Schmidt about finding an opportunity to work with children in her community, Chicago HOPES was a perfect match.

“All of the kids I’ve worked with have been really open to having an outsider like me come in,” Lindsey said. “They gave me an open door to get to know them.”


April 6, 2024, Evanston, IL: A game between Northwestern Softball and Michigan at Sharon J. Drysdale Field in Evanston, IL on Saturday, April 6, 2024. (Photo by Joshua Sukoff/Northwestern Athletics)


Lindsey’s first opportunity to volunteer came in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. Her focus was on helping Chicago HOPES for Kids launch a literacy program, incorporating other academic subjects and plenty of time for play into the curriculum.

Working with a group of volunteers, Lindsey started to find her voice as a mentor.

“I grew up in a single-family home, where my Dad was incarcerated, so when I see some of these situations, I feel comfortable talking to these kids about hard things because I can relate,” she said. “When you brush that off and get to know the people instead of what they’re going through, they’re just normal kids who are being impacted by their home life.”

The fact that Lindsey plays softball on ESPN every spring has impressed some students, though she said the middle school boys she works with are a notoriously tough crowd.

“They just think they’re too cool for me, but we’ve been playing basketball the last few weeks and it’s fun to relate to them through sports,” she said. “I’ve tried not to be too competitive because that’s no fun for anyone.”

Traveling to Austin or Lakeview on her off days could take Lindsey up to an hour, but for one game this season, she made sure the Chicago HOPES community could come to her.

The organization already has a Northwestern connection, with former softball player Amy Letourneau Anthony as a board member. She threw out the first pitch at the team’s game against Maryland and Chicago HOPES received a donation for every ticket purchased.



“Outside of the weather, it was fantastic,” Kahn said. “We had a nice little group there and saw Ayana make a fantastic catch in center field. Plus, Amy threw a strike, so it was just a perfect day.”

Even as Lindsey prepares for another trip to the NCAA Tournament with Northwestern, she’s excited to continue with Chicago HOPES for KIDS and keep growing in the role.

“It’s given me a voice to talk to kids,” Lindsey said. “I think Chicago HOPES is doing a lot of great things and really has the ability to impact our community. We’re doing a lot of good.”