By SARA GIBONEY
KEARNEY – The second-graders bounced excitedly when Laramey Lewis joined them on the playground with a basketball.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney student-athlete taught those second-graders a thing or two about basketball that day, but she also gained their trust and became a friend.
That meeting last year with students at Bryant Elementary School was part of the Junior Herd Club, a collaboration between UNK and Kearney Public Schools, that allows elementary school students and UNK student-athletes to engage in a positive way.
“It makes me feel good that the students trusted me enough that they could come to me with anything,” said Lewis, a guard for the Lopers women’s basketball team. “Knowing that I’m helping the kids out, that’s a really good feeling.”
The program aims to foster mentorships and relationships through educational and social experiences, develop positive one-to-one relationships, enhance literacy scores, expand and support the KPS curriculum, help students meet academic standards and complement KPS district programming in character education.
“The kids always really enjoy it,” said Emerson Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Chris Weis. “They just like that one-on-one contact or small-group work. The attention they get, they’re always game for it.”
Weis, who participated in the program last year, said the Junior Herd Club provides positive role models to students in her class. Student-athletes helped her fourth-graders with homework, reading and language skills.
“Their stress is lessened because they’re getting support with homework that they’re not getting at home necessarily,” Weis said. “They’re excited too, because they’re maybe understanding a concept that they were struggling with and just needed somebody to work through it with them.”
Lewis, a sophomore exercise science major from Trenton, helped Bryant students with reading, writing and math, and even got to play a some basketball during recess.
“I really encouraged (the kids) to continue their education,” said Lewis. “A lot of students said they wanted to be a professional athlete, but I said, ‘Not everyone can go pro.’ I really wanted to encourage them to stick out their education.”
UNK launched the Junior Herd Club last year, and participation by student athletes was overwhelming, said Shawn Fairbanks, assistant athletic director. The nearly 450 student athletes at UNK are required to complete 10 hours of community service each year. This year, only sophomore student-athletes can volunteer with the Junior Herd Club.
“The goal and objective of the program is to provide kids within KPS the opportunity to get some real mentoring,” Fairbanks said.
Elementary teachers can request male or female student-athletes from a specific sport and choose what the student will do in the classroom. Athletes can work with students on writing skills, reading, character skills, bullying awareness, character education, nutrition education or classroom behavior.
“I don’t want athletes to be pigeonholed,” Fairbanks said. “Being an athlete is a small part of who they are. They are also 3.8 (GPA) students in biology, they are also kids who have a passion for reading, they are also people who have hobbies. This program allows them to share that side of themselves.”
For more information on the Junior Herd Club, go to www.lopers.com and click “Community Engagement” or contact Fairbanks at 308-865-8184.