April 13, 2015

University's athletes give back to surrounding community

Some days, a ball skirted along the grass; others, feet squeaked across the court. The execution, though, wasn’t necessarily a spectacle to behold. Balls were kicked 10 feet away from their targets; others dribbled inadvertently from hands to feet. But the beauty of sport rang nonetheless, for, despite each mistake and frustration, there was an equal amount excitement and happiness and shouting jubilation.

For the past month, UChicago’s Order of the C, one of the university’s primary student-athlete organizations, has provided free lessons to Ray Elementary students. 25 children, ranging from kindergarten to third-grade, were taught the fundamentals of soccer and basketball.

Ray Elementary often looks to partner with UChicago to provide after-school activities for its students. But, at the time, they didn’t have any related to sports. However, that all changed with an email.

Lindsay Banman, Resident head of Flint House, asked third-year swimmer Brian Weisbecker if he would like to start such an after-school program. “Normally when you send an e-mail like that, you don’t expect to get a reply. But [Brian] responded within five minutes,” Banman explains. Soon enough, third-year football player Justin Waney had signed on as head coach. “After just a month of emails, we had the program ready to go.”

However, there was some concern that the program would falter before it had a chance to take off. “We promoted at Ray….[but] we were afraid we wouldn’t get enough students in the middle of winter,” Banman said. However, the concern quickly disappeared. Within the first week, in addition to the 25 signed on, there were over 20 students on the waiting list.

The Undergraduate Order of the C’s mission is simple: “to keep the memory of the University athletic life and perpetuate the athletic honor and traditions of [the] University.” However, with this program the Order of the C represented far more than just its parent organization. The program displayed the essence of sport itself.

The young Ray students weren’t focused on just competition, weren’t intent on just defeating an opponent. Instead, they ran across the pitch, shuffled across the court, jumped to grab a ball, celebrated a success, all to just have fun and improve. The final result was, regardless of any temporary misstep or blunder, a smile.

“[The students] loved the program. It was a huge success,” Banman said.

However, the program couldn’t have succeeded without its leaders: Weisbecker and Justin Waney. “Credit goes to the student coaches at UChicago. With 25 kids, it would be really easy for things to go crazy. But they were always prepared with lesson plans. I’m so impressed by their effort and energy. For an hour, they completely devoted themselves to the kids” Banman said.

Along the way, the students also developed their skills. With each passing week, what was once an awkward pass or move became a natural one. What once required focused attention became an easy afterthought. However, while the UChicago coaches helped each of the kids improve athletically, they also did much more.

Ray Elementary is a diverse community. Many of the kids at Ray will likely be first-generation college students. “It’s always great for kids to have involvement with [undergraduates]. It rubs off on them. It’s important to have another person supporting them, believing in them,” says Banman.

The UChicago student-athlete volunteers did all this and more.

Overall, the program was an unmitigated success for all involved. As Banman recounts, “The parents loved the program. There was one mom whose son was sick during one of the days. The mom said her son was distraught—not because he had to miss school, but because he couldn’t [come to the lessons].”

The winter quarter has come and gone. The kids, though, will have many more chances to enjoy the sports. Spearheaded by Weisbecker and Waney, the Order of the C will again offer the free after school activity in the spring. All 25 spots have already been filled, with 27 additional students on a waiting list.

The program will experiment with small changes, possibly adding leadership component. However, its essence remains unchanged: to arrange free lessons and provide smiles along the way.