Fighting Illini athletic teams, including men's basketball, frequent the Garden Hill Elementary school to support the Student of the Month program.
Feb. 18, 2011
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Nearly a decade ago, the University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics created a community service program that has made an incredible impact in the lives of young people. The creation of a student-of-the-month awards luncheon featuring appearances by Illinois student-athletes has completely changed the dynamics of an area elementary school for the better.
The program began in 2002 when Illinois Athletics Academic Counselor Kathy Kaler, head of the Illinois community service outreach Hometown Heroes program, met with Champaign Garden Hills Elementary Principal Cheryl O'Leary. Illinois men's basketball player James Augustine had expressed interest in reaching out to an area school with a lunchtime appearance. He wished to share positive messages that would inspire young people to do well in school and stay out of trouble.
O'Leary expressed interest in the appearance. She asked Kaler if the appearances from men¹s basketball players could occur on a monthly basis. A monthly awards program would be added saluting the students who performed the best in terms of their grades and citizenship. Only the students who were part of the honors event would be allowed to have the chance to meet the Illinois student-athlete. One student per classroom would be selected. Kaler liked the idea.
Augustine's first appearance at the school was a tremendous success. The children that missed the first opportunity to have lunch with Augustine began to alter their behavior, focusing on their coursework and citizenship so they, too, could meet an Illinois basketball player. Augustine enjoyed his time with the Garden Hills kids so much he made a return appearance. Soon thereafter, Augustine brought teammate Dee Brown with him for an awards luncheon. Brown's appearance had an unintended result that speaks to the incredible impression Fighting Illini student-athletes have on young students.
"The first time Dee was here, kids were hyperventilating," O'Leary said.
Augustine and Brown, sophomores at the time of their initial Garden Hills stop, continued to visit the elementary school over their final three seasons at Illinois. Luther Head and Jack Ingram were among the men's basketball players that followed in their footsteps.
When the men's basketball team started visiting Garden Hills nine years ago, 532 students faced disciplinary referral and 117 children faced suspension. Last year, only 13 students faced disciplinary referral and nine were suspended. That is a disciplinary rate reduction that exceeds 97 percent. O'Leary gives credit for the change to the Illinois student-athlete appearances at the Student of the Month Awards luncheons.
"It really changed the climate of this building," O'Leary said. "We have them tell the kids they need to follow through. These kids don't forget."
In the years that have followed, Kaler has expanded this Hometown Heroes program to student-athletes across all sports. One of the students' all-time favorites was 2009 Illinois graduate Lacey Simpson from the women¹s basketball program. Simpson played her senior season while pursuing a master's degree.
"Lacey was very popular here," O'Leary said. "The kids went to a game and they had posters supporting Lacey. She would stop by at recess. She was the designated pitcher for kickball."
One of the best stories about the program involves current track star Andrew Riley, the NCAA Champion in the 110-meter hurdles. Riley met with the children at Garden Hills earlier this year. They were trying to understand the events Riley competes in as well as other aspects of the track and field events Riley was describing.
Riley shared an amazingly unselfish idea. He committed to return to Garden Hills sometime this spring to demonstrate various elements of the sport he loves. These are the kinds of unselfish acts that Illinois student-athletes engage in that often go unnoticed.
The Orange Krush, the Fighting Illini men's basketball support group, provides funding for the Student of the Month Awards program. Their donation provides T-shirts and food for each event.
The combined efforts of Illinois student-athletes, Kaler, and the Orange Krush have made a tremendous impact in the lives of these young people. Kaler said she is open to expanding the program to other local schools.
Illinois student-athletes will once again be ready to answer the call.