Under an oak tree in the shadow of Tiger Stadium stands a very special wall. Inscribed on it are the names of LSU football players who have achieved Academic All-American status, and above them is the name of an organization that has helped many Tiger athletes achieve academic success: the Bengal Belles.
The wall was erected earlier this year, thanks to the Belles’ most recent pledge of $250,000, a figure that only hints at the group’s contributions to the university.
“The Bengal Belles name is synonymous with the academic side of sports, and now we’re a permanent part of Tiger Stadium,” says the organization’s first and only leader, Aimee Simon. There is a note of pride in Aimee’s voice as she talks about this symbol of the group’s remarkable efforts over nearly 18 years.
Much has changed since the day in 1996 when Terri DiNardo, then the first lady of LSU football, teamed with Aimee to start a small women’s group to support the football program. The two were shocked when 250 people showed up at the first Bengal Belles luncheon. Since then, enthusiasm for the group’s activities has soared; members now number around 1,000, with dues directed toward the Belles’ mission to support the Cox Communications Academic Center for Student-Athletes (ACSA) at LSU.
Earlier this year, the group hit the million-dollar mark for contributions to LSU athletics and the ACSA. With sponsorships, vendor fees and raffle ticket sales added to dues and luncheon tickets, the Belles are moving rapidly toward reaching the next million.
“We have promoted and raised the consciousness level of academics in sports,” says Aimee, noting that the ACSA has been dramatically improved and graduation rates have steadily climbed under the Belles’ watch. “We’re making a difference in the lives of all student-athletes, not just the football players.”
Aimee’s enthusiasm for the group’s projects hasn’t waned a bit over the years. She’s already effusing about next year’s luncheon lineup, including a kickoff event in Houston before the season opener there; Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis is slated to attend. “So now we’re going to extend ourselves to Texas, where there is a tremendous LSU alumni base, and we’re going to get a lot bigger,” she says.
She and the other Belles leaders have also written what they call a “playbook,” a manual for putting together a successful organization like theirs, and intend to market it to other universities.
“It doesn’t end,” she says. “Now that we have our success story documented, we’re ready to extend it in even more ways.”
For more information, see belles.tigerboosterclubs.org.
What do you love about the volunteer efforts that you do?
So many people in our state love football, and we’ve given them the opportunity to get to know the
players and the coaches better. It’s very fulfilling.
How is your cause making a difference?
So many kids come from backgrounds where they haven’t been encouraged to really pursue their education—they think sports are their ticket to success. We try to get them to understand that education is the real ticket, and sports are just giving them the chance to get their education.
How do you hope to inspire others?
In starting any group, there are always going to be obstacles. But if you focus and have a good mission statement, you can make your organization strong and successful.