Two-time Paralympian Markeith Price recalls a time, pre-pandemic, when he and fellow U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Team athlete Lex Gillette stopped for a sandwich in Chula Vista, California.
Someone had taken the two, who are both visually impaired, out to run some errands and they wanted something quick to eat. One of the employees recognized Gillette, and the interaction reinforced why Price believes so strongly in supporting Classroom Champions as a mentor.
“This kid who was working there said to Lex, ‘Man, you’re Lex Gillette, you spoke at my school and I remember you said this and that, and now I’m 18 and I’m about to go to college,’” Price said. “And that’s the thing about Classroom Champions is hopefully when these kids are 18, 20, maybe 25, they’ll remember that year they had me as a mentor for Classroom Champions. And not just me, but I want them to remember the lessons and the things we talked about.”
Classroom Champions pairs athlete mentors with underserved students in classrooms all over North America in a virtual setting. Founded by Olympic bobsledder Steve Mesler and his sister and educator Dr. Leigh Parise, in 2009, the program has brought more than 200 Olympic, Paralympic, college and professional athletes into more than 1,800 classrooms. The programming centers around teaching important social and emotional skills, including leadership, goalsetting and community involvement.
Athletes will serve as mentors throughout the school year, so they build a relationship with the students. There’s a different theme each month, and each athlete will prepare a video for the class to introduce the topic, talk about how it’s made an impact in his or her life and why it’s important. Then the athlete will issue a challenge for the students to work on throughout the month. They’ll respond with videos of their own, and throughout the year they’ll also have live interactive video chats.
Price, 30, got involved a few years ago. He’d been looking for a way to be more active in the community, he said, but between his visual impairment and his busy training schedule it was hard to find something that worked. Classroom Champions, he said, was perfect.
One of his favorite topics is diversity.
“I really like that one because it allows for people to understand that everyone matters,” he said. “Every person who’s in the room, in your space, in the world.”
Depending on the grade level, Price said, he may challenge them to draw what diversity looks like to them, he said, or perhaps illustrate a conversation about diversity.
He also enjoys talking about emotions and mental health, he said. Since kids tend to look at athletes as superheroes, he enjoys sharing with them the struggles he’s had and how he’s dealt with them to show that everyone has difficulties and emotions they need to work through.
Tim Jones teaches sixth grade in Salinas, California, and Price was his classroom mentor two years ago. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, he said, because he had a student who was losing his vision.
“He’d normally come to school with his skateboard and he played a lot of sports, and as his vision got worse, he stopped doing everything,” Jones said. “We got Markeith Price as a mentor, and (the student) saw what he was doing, and the fact that he was still competing and still able to do stuff and I think that really inspired him. He started bringing his skateboard back, and last year, before COVID, he was on the wrestling team. He picked up the sport and ran with it. I think Markeith inspired him that yes, I’m going blind, but this isn’t the end of my life. His grades improved; his whole attitude completely changed.”
Sometimes Price will post little messages to the students in addition to the lessons. For instance, he said, he’ll take a quick video saying, “Hey, I’m training right now but I thought this would be a good time for us to all take a breath together,” or showing the nutritious foods he’s about to eat to demonstrate healthy living goals.
“It’s just a great experience to know that this is having an impact on the students and hopefully they’ll grow and learn and be able to strive for whatever it is they want to do,” he said. “Maybe one day, who knows, one of them will write me a letter and say, ‘Hey, you were my Classroom Champions mentor.’ That’s just a thought. But at the end of the day I just like knowing I’m helping and I’m part of the community because it takes a village.”