When student-run Athletes For Hope at the University of Virginia ("AFH-UVA") launched its Teams in School pilot program, it was received warmly by the Albemarle County Office of the Superintendent of Schools and Dr. Bernard Hairston, the Executive Director in charge of community programs. Co-founded by rising sophomores Kimberly Levinstein and Mitchell Wellman in cooperation with the national Athletes for Hope organization, AFH-UVA's initial goal was to introduce varsity UVA athletes as a team to underserved school communities in a manner that would foster long-term continuity. When Principal Kathryn Baylor of Jack Jouett Middle School (grades 6, 7, 8) expressed interest in serving as the pilot middle school, AFH-UVA offered the UVA Womens' Rowing Team the chance to be Jack Jouett's partner. The team embraced the opportunity.
Tenacious rising senior rower Caroline Burke ran with the idea. "NCAA athletes can have a massive impact on kids with a very small gift of their time and caring," she told me. She had the strong support of Coach Kevin Sauer, UVA's rowing coach of 26 years who recently led his athletes to two team NCAA national championships (2012, 2010). "Student athletes are given extraordinary opportunities," he said. "They have the opportunity to give back to their community and they need to lead it themselves."
Principal Baylor told me that Jack Jouett is an ideal partner for three reasons. First, 46% of its students qualify for free-reduced lunch; second, the middle school is within a stone's throw of the rowing team's boathouse; and finally, the school's progressive staff embraces individual determination, persistence, and grit as guiding principles for its students. "Those are a rower's qualities," she added.
The rowers arrive weekly--the team devotes 30 woman-hours per week to the school--and have been paired with students who can use one-on-one attention. Sixth and seventh graders are given preference to promote long-term continuity during their middle school years. Continuity will be bolstered immeasurably by AFH-UVA's announcement last month that the UVA Men's Soccer and Field Hockey teams committed to adopt Agnor-Hurt Elementary School, which "feeds" Jack Jouett.
Several teachers praised the rowers' weekly regularity and the fact that the emphasis of the tutoring is often on building personal relationships with the children in addition to academics. According to Ms. Laina Hanchak (6th and 7th grade Science), "middle school is when kids get swallowed up, even with the best preparation. The stability the rowers provide these children gives them a personal advocate during one of the most tumultuous times of life." After tutoring sessions, rowers can pull teachers aside and report on needs that they learn of or are able to identify through their personal bond. "The rowers' presence is invaluable for students who have lots of discontinuity in their lives," 6th grade Language Arts teacher Victoria Megginson told me.
Lizzy Youngling, a rising senior rower, says she has become a good friend to a young student from Kenya. "We get plenty of schoolwork done, but she has learned to open up to me and trust me. She wants to be a singer and actress and we talk about reaching her goals."
The rowing team has also had an impact on the entire school through special projects. The middle school is home to students from an astounding 33 countries. During UVA's spring break, the team painted brand new ceiling tiles with the flags of every country represented at the school. The tiles now hang proudly. The flags are a learning experience about diversity for all who frequent the library, but they are especially important to students from those countries who want to assimilate at a young age while still taking pride in their countries of origin.
Teachers mention increased motivation, self-assurance, and greater classroom confidence and participation among other visible results of the program.
"And these children are so proud of their rowers," Ms. Kimberly Ann Gibson (7th grade Language Arts) told me. "Everyone wants a rower and our kids are now very curious about rowing, which they probably wouldn't otherwise be exposed to."
Coach Sauer himself volunteers weekly, as do assistant coaches Ms. Brett Sickler and Joshua Gautreau, world and national champions, respectively. According to Sauer, there are distinct similarities between teaching his student and his rowers.
"You teach perseverance. You teach that it's not easy, but if you keep at it, you'll get where you want to be. The key to teaching and being a coach is care and compassion. These form a platform from which you can push people further than they think they can go. It doesn't matter if it's rowing or going to college or being the best drywaller or electrician. Find your gift and challenge yourself every day. Mentors who care can teach this."
It's not unusual for the warm cry "The rowers are here!" to emanate from the middle school's classrooms. To put it mildly, the rowers are loved, and their students teach them too. Coach Sauer emphasized that most UVA rowers come from backgrounds vastly different than the kids at Jack Jouett. "Our team's motto is Entitled to Nothing. Grateful for Everything. When these rowers volunteer, they understand the meaning of that, and their eyes are opened by developing personal relationships and realizing that these amazing middle school students are so close to their university community."
Emily Pik, a graduating senior and Captain of this past year's team, may have said it best. As she prepares to don cap and gown and walk down Thomas Jefferson's Lawn this month and then into New York City's world of consulting, she reflected on her experience at Jack Jouett.
"Graduation can be a stressful time, but my student taught me to recapture my youthful exuberance and to live day by day."
The caring flows in both directions.
In the coming weeks, rowers and middle school students alike will scatter for the Summer.
In the Fall, however, Jack Jouett Middle School will come alive for a new school year. Nearby, oars will once again skim the water. And that familiar cry--"The rowers are here!"--will fill the hallways.