Fifth-grader Ka’Juan Solomon-Brown told his 7-foot-1 mentor, Frederik Jörg, about good choices, and then they threw a ball around and slid down slides on the elementary school playground.
“And this is a place to sit and rest,” said Solomon-Brown, pointing to a purple bench under a play structure.
Eastern Washington University basketball team members are mentoring fifth-grade boys at Whitman Elementary School; the college’s volleyball team mentors girls. The program, dubbed CHAMPS (College Headed and Making Progress), is the brainchild of kindergarten teacher Jodi Schock and EWU coach Jim Hayford. It provides a role model for students at the Hillyard school and encourages them to aim for college.
The athletes benefit, too. “For me, it’s a joy,” Jörg said in a thick German accent. “I think we can have a good influence. It makes me feel good about myself.”
Players also learn about the community that supports them.
Schock grew up in Hillyard. The Rogers High School graduate had strong family support, played sports and always knew college would be part of her future. That’s not typical of kids living in the city’s poorest ZIP code, and Schock wants to do her part to make a difference.
“I get the kids. I get the struggles, but I get that there are opportunities,” she said.
Schock took a class from Hayford when she attended Whitworth University. While brainstorming ways to help students, she recalled how sports encouraged so many friends to finish high school and continue on to college. She knew Hayford would understand how elementary school students could benefit from having college athletes as mentors, “seeing and hearing stories about people” who are successful.
Hayford agreed. The program was up and running within two weeks and launched in October.
“I feel like if my guys are going to participate in community service, I wanted it to be long-term, significant and relationship-based,” he said.
EWU’s volleyball coach heard about the program and his team members became mentors, too.
Twice a month the college athletes visit Whitman, and once a month the elementary students go to EWU. Program supporters believe the more students visit college campuses, the more comfortable they feel about becoming a part of that community and can envision themselves there in the future.
Every session includes a focal point; this week it was making good decisions.
“What do you do if you find something that’s not yours?” Jörg asked Solomon-Brown.
“It depends on what it is,” the boy replied.
“Is that how it should be?” Jörg asked.
No matter what, “one of the biggest things in life is you always try to be a good person,” Jörg said.
The athletes also meet with Whitman’s fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders every two months to talk about topics, such as goal setting, determination or perseverance.
So far, a dozen fifth-grade boys are being mentored by basketball players and 15 fifth-grade girls are being mentored by volleyball players. The goal is to eventually have a mentor for each fifth-grader, Schock said.
The athlete-student pairings are expected to continue through graduation at Rogers High School. When an EWU student-athlete graduates, an incoming student will take their place as mentor.
EWU point guard Will Ferris said it’s a great experience to help kids learn about life, and “We learn a lot about ourselves, too.”
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