Courant features CCSU football players who are showing students importance of education.
Posted 03/29/2012 01:55PM

CCSU Football Players Show Students Importance Of Education

The Hartford Courant

But there was Williams on a recent sunny day at Stafford School, no mask or helmet hiding his smile, no pads under his blue jersey, perched atop the slide on the playground, surrounded by fourth-grade students, who giggled as he flipped through the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. Four of Williams' Central teammates – Patrick Atkinson, Taylor Fuller, Devon Dixon and Lawton Arnold – sat nearby on big rocks, benches and grass, commanding the same attention and getting the same reactions as they read aloud.

"I would definitely say they were excited to see us, and it also makes you feel good about yourself," Williams said. "It makes you feel good that you're making them feel good."

And that's what at the heart of this endeavor — elementary students and college students mutually benefiting from their interaction. This recent event, about 90 minutes spent with children in grades 3-5, was part of CCSU's education-through-athletics program made possible by a $50,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation. After time outside, the five players gathered in one classroom, passing a book between them and reading to a group of about 40 children, then split up into different classrooms, where they took part in skits designed by students.

"It's fun seeing these kids jumping around," said Atkinson, a redshirt-freshman linebacker from Stamford. "You give them high-fives, see the smiles on their faces and talk to them about the importance of education … and how it's going to be with them for life."

Central applied for the grant last fall, put together a vision, and was announced as a recipient in February. The general goal is to expose schoolchildren to the "importance of education and the value of participation in athletics," and there is multi-pronged motivation in the Central athletic department. The Blue Devils want to push their image as New Britain's team – and that of all of central Connecticut – and also increase awareness of the program to bolster their fan base while playing a role in the development of the area's youth.

"It's beneficial and exciting on multiple levels," athletic director Paul Schlickmann said. "Ultimately, the most important thing is we have a chance to positively influence the youth. But it falls in line with so many institutional and departmental core values. Communication is a core mission of the university. Community engagement is one of our core values, and I feel like it's incumbent upon us to use athletics to enhance the mission of the university.

"There are so many skill-building aspects to it that help our athletes, too, the personal development. … When you talk about a positive educational experience, the most obvious is the academic component, and part of having a positive experience if you're a student-athlete is competitive success. But then there's the other piece, the substance of the rest of the educational experience, and to go out to the community and read in front of kids, there's a sense of teamwork."

The $50,000 goes to the purchase of books that go to the schools, travel expenses, food and drinks for children when they visit CCSU for various events, T-shirts for children, and athletic equipment to be used at campus clinics. The program, which emphasizes literacy, focuses on New Britain elementary schools but does include schools in surrounding towns, such as Bristol and Newington.

"The money will go a long way to make a difference in the local elementary schools and the surrounding community," Walmart personnel and community relations manager Beth Egliskis said in statement when the grant was announced.

The project began in earnest in late February with the March Madness Reading Challenge, when students took part in reading initiatives and were awarded points in a setup similar to the NCAA Tournament. On Feb. 25, about 1,000 children were guests on the Central campus for the National Education Association's Read Across America Day – and the men's basketball team's regular season finale vs. Wagner.

The project was designed in a collaboration between the athletic department, the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and the New Britain Athletics Task Force, of which Schlickmann is a member. Assistant athletic director Stephen Villanti was key to putting together the proposal. Kacey Light has been named Central's coordinator of athletics educational partnership and does much of the event planning.

"There's so much good we can do," Schlickmann said. "It just ties into everything we want to be as an institution and everything we want to be as an athletic department. We want to have all our teams touch it. The natural vehicle is making it a core mission of SAAC. We're trying to empower the athletes – again, their development – to organize and take a leadership role."

Then it's up to the players, their personality, their ability to relate – as Williams can.

"It's definitely a great experience, simply because I know the impact it can have," said Williams, who remembers school visits from members of the 76ers when he was a young student in Philadelphia. "It definitely had an impact on my future aspirations and endeavors. There were a lot of enrichment programs that came to my neighborhood, and I really felt like the people who came to those programs made me look forward to going to college and having career goals. I haven't been in those programs since I was 10 or 11, and I still remember them vividly."

The grant is for one year, and Central plans to re-apply. There are no specific goals other than to gauge the program's success through feedback, involve more students from Central and elementary schools and work toward more ideas. If the mood at Stafford School is any indication, the program has been a resounding success.

"It's giving these kids role models, and they light up," said Kathy Pendergast, the literacy specialist at Stafford. "These athletes are showing the kids how important school is, and how important what you do now is to your future. The students identify more with the athletes, and look up to them."