When former Team USA bobsledder Steve Mesler used to frequently visit schools as an athlete, he’d give talks to classrooms, but then he would never see those students again.
“I’d walk out and say if one or two kids were listening, then it was worth my time,” Mesler said. “But I wanted to know the actual result.”
So, leading up to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games — where Mesler won gold in the four-man bobsled — he and his sister piloted a program with nine schools called Classroom Champions to make school visits more impactful for both athletes and students, as well as teachers.
Classroom Champions connects Olympic and Paralympic athletes with students across North America by way of a virtual pen-pal relationship. Through video lessons and live video chats, Olympians and Paralympians are brought into low-income or at-risk classrooms as ongoing mentors to teach kids about goal-setting, perseverance, interpersonal skills, school engagement and digital literacy, which are all areas that lead to increased academic performance.
Each month, athletes give their classrooms a specific theme, such as fair play or healthy living, to build their lesson plans around.
The program has grown enormously since its initiation, with more than 80 athletes having mentored more than 19,000 students over the last eight years.
This year alone, more than 40 athletes are serving as mentors in over 200 classrooms across the United States and Canada.
Classroom Champions is one example of how sports can affect lives outside the playing field, a theme echoed each April 6 on International Day of Sport for Development and Peace (IDSDP) — held annually by the United Nations as a celebration of the power of sport to drive social change and community development and foster peace and understanding. Classroom Champions centers around the potential for sport to contribute to social change and human development, a key pillar of the day, which is held on the same day of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.
“Sport is such a powerful tool for kids. It’s demonstrable for them,” Mesler said. “You want kids to learn how to treat each other better. You want kids to learn how to set a goal and go after it. Sport is something they can see. So when their athlete mentor talks about goal setting, they’re not talking about setting a goal in sport, but rather are using their sport as an example because sport is something that kids can see.”
According to Classroom Champions’ most recent impact report, the program strengthens 99 percent of students’ goal-setting abilities (emotional impact), 98 percent of students’ interpersonal skills (social impact), 92 percent of students’ grades (academic impact) and 92 percent of their technology skills (digital literacy impact).
It also takes students’ minds off whatever is going on in their personal lives or the hardships they’re facing in their homes or local communities.
“For our kids, it’s really important to learn that sport is a way to ride the bug off whatever else is happening,” Mesler said.
The program is also right in line with ISDSP’s theme of empowering, inspiring and uniting.
Olympic and Paralympic athletes such as two-time medalist bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor and two-time Paralympic champion sled hockey player Adam Page empower and inspire students, with 94 percent of students in the program saying that their athlete mentor is also their friend. Furthermore, the program unites entire classrooms, with 100 percent of participating teachers saying it improves their classroom culture and 97 percent of them saying it improves students’ treatment of one another.
The application process is currently open through the end of April for schools in underserved communities to become a part of Classroom Champions for the 2017-18 academic year. In a year that will be highlighted by the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, those classrooms selected will have the chance to work with Olympians and Paralympians who are some of the most well-versed people in learning how to set goals and persevere.
“Athletes have so much more to give than just showing kids how to do their sport,” Mesler said. “You’re putting someone in a classroom virtually with someone who is in their moment. That’s the best part of this. You’ve got athletes who are in their moment, and these kids are being able to live that moment with these athletes.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.