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By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – It’s pretty clear who Barrett Hill’s favorite University of Nebraska at Kearney wrestler is.
The Meadowlark Elementary School first-grader had his eyes locked on Mike Lambert from the moment the UNK athlete entered the classroom. Hill was excited to see his reading buddy.
The duo breezed through one book, then another, then a third as the 184-pound redshirt senior sat at the tiny, child-sized desk, Hill’s arm resting on his shoulder.
“This just makes my day,” said Lambert, an education major from Fremont. “These kids have a lot of energy. They do a lot of goofy things and it brings a smile to my face.”
Hill was also having a good time.
“It’s fun and it’s really good and I love it,” he said of the visit.
Each Monday, the UNK wrestling team spends an hour hanging out with kindergarten and first-grade students at Meadowlark Elementary. They chat, read books and participate in educational activities – a recent stop included a fall-themed scavenger hunt for first-graders and a bingo game that tested kindergartners’ subtraction skills.
The collaboration is part of the new Loper AthLEADS program, which encourages UNK student-athletes and coaches to make a difference both on and off campus.
Marc Bauer, who started the program after he was named UNK’s interim athletic director earlier this year, wants to pair each team with at least one Kearney school and one local nonprofit to promote community involvement.
“If our student-athletes aren’t engaged, you don’t have that sense of belonging,” said Bauer, a former wrestling coach at UNK.
Loper football players got up early one morning to welcome students at Sunrise Middle School, the men’s basketball team hosted a barbecue for teachers and staff at Windy Hills Elementary and UNK softball players decorated pumpkins with students at Bryant Elementary.
The track team sorted and wrapped gifts at the Salvation Army this week, and numerous Loper athletes and coaches will help with Salvation Army bell ringing and Thursday’s North Pole Express event in Kearney. Like the wrestling team, the swimming and diving team spends Tuesday afternoons reading with students at Kenwood Elementary.
UNK swimmer Mikara Feit said the partnership is mutually beneficial – the elementary students gain confidence while developing their reading skills and the athletes, many of whom are education majors, gain hands-on experience working with young children.
“It’s definitely good to be out in the community,” said Feit, a special education major from Lincoln.
The junior also enjoys the young students’ enthusiasm during each visit.
“They get really excited and they like it a lot,” she said.
Emily Campbell, a kindergarten teacher at Kenwood Elementary, notices the same elation every Tuesday afternoon.
“The kindergartners love to see role models in the room,” Campbell said. “They look up to them and they can see how beneficial it is for them to be reading now so they can be swimmers and be successful in school as they get bigger.”
Back at Meadowlark Elementary, first-grade teacher Abby Fong called the relationship with UNK athletics an amazing opportunity for her students.
“My kids just absolutely eat this up,” she said. “When the wrestlers walk in, their eyes literally light up. They get so excited.”
Fong said the weekly visits motivate the first-graders, create a connection between sports and academics and show them there’s more to being a college athlete than performing on game day.
“It’s so cool for them to see that community participation,” she added.
Calvin Ochs, a redshirt senior from Hoxie, Kansas, and two-time All-American wrestler for UNK, believes it’s important for student-athletes to give back to the community and show appreciation for the support they receive.
“This is a great opportunity to come here and read,” the finance major said after finishing books on farming and firetrucks in Karen Fusby’s kindergarten class. “They’re always a good time and I know all the wrestlers look forward to it.”
The bonds these athletes are forming now could pay dividends down the road.
In addition to being an opportunity to relax and cut loose, UNK head coach Dalton Jensen said his wrestlers are learning patience, communication and other life skills from the young children.
“It gives them a little bit of exposure before they eventually become fathers and husbands someday,” Jensen said.
The program is also a great way to promote UNK sports and grow the fan base.
“When I was in elementary school, I had no idea what wrestling was,” Lambert said. “Who knows? We might have some future wrestlers here.”
He definitely has a new friend.
UNK ATHLETIC TEAM PARTNERSHIPS
Wrestling – Meadowlark Elementary School and Habitat for Humanity
Men’s Basketball – Windy Hills Elementary School and Crossroads Center Rescue Mission
Swimming and Diving – Kenwood Elementary School and Kearney Area Animal Shelter
Softball – Emerson Elementary School and McKenna’s Rae of Hope Foundation
Women’s Basketball – Bryant Elementary School
Track and Field – Salvation Army
Volleyball – HelpCare Clinic
Tennis – Kearney Tennis Association
Golf – Kearney Community Foundation
Football – Meadowlark and Northeast elementary schools and Sunrise Middle School.
More partnerships with local schools and nonprofits will be formed as the academic year progresses.