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Program connects athletes, students for a unique learning experience

Working toward goals. Overcoming obstacles. Becoming a leader. Learning new skills. These are things teachers and parents want their children to do, and they are all things demonstrated by Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Why not make a connection? Classroom Champions strives to do just that, and is looking to expand in Western New York.

Steve Mesler, Olympic gold medal winner, Buffalo native and City Honors grad, is the president and CEO of Classroom Champions, which connects students of all ages with Olympians and Paralympians through videos and live chats. Mesler and his sister, Leigh Mesler Parise, created the educational program in 2010. Through technology, schools can bring the lessons of these hardworking athletes into classrooms to inspire and motivate students.

Heather Bown, an Olympic silver medalist in volleyball and one of the program’s mentors, explains that Classroom Champions offers children a new outlook on learning.

“Sharing real-life experiences with youth can motivate them and inspire them,” Bown said. “We, as mentors, offer [students] a different perspective on the lessons constantly given by parents and teachers.”

One of the main objectives of the program is for students to feel that not only can they handle whatever is coming their way, but they are prepared and excited to start working for it.

“The way we see the world is often either the limiting or enabling factor to our success,” Mesler said. “By providing students not only a new viewpoint, but the tips to act on that view, we hope to change the trajectory of thousands of students.”

Classroom Champions acknowledges the difficulties that elementary and middle school students face.

“Everything,” Bown said, “when you think about it, is a challenge. Everything is a goal. To break down life into daily, weekly or yearlong goals at a young age makes it less overwhelming as a whole and sets a foundation for what is to come.”

Mesler agrees, and compared a kindergartner learning to read to an Olympian working at their sport.

“I’ve seen fifth-graders writing out five steps to achieve a goal, and following them verbatim to have success in math, or raising canned goods for a local food shelter,” Mesler said.

The program breaks down the process of goal-setting into organized steps.

Classroom Champions strives to establish a solid base of resilience, grit and growth mindset in students.

“The reason these skills are important,” Mesler said, “is that to succeed in school, or in life, you have to believe you can accomplish the goals you set out (growth mindset), you have to understand achieving a goal takes a long time (resilience) and that you’re going to fail on your way multiple times before you succeed (grit).”

They teach kids not to give up.

“Sometimes it is not a join from A to B to C, but from A to B and then back to A,” Bown said. “We are trying to teach kids to persevere through the difficult times and to show them that we, at the highest ranking in our profession, have also had to.”

Classroom Champions also aims to help students with interpersonal skills.

“You have to understand someone is in your corner and success is a team effort,” Mesler said, “which will lead to feeling valued in school along with having something at school that is unique for you as a person.”

Learning in a technological age has many perks, and bringing technology into classrooms opens opportunities for teachers and students. Through technology, Classroom Champions allows the athletes to come into the classroom. The relationship between mentors and students includes live video chats, Google hangouts, Google calls, and prerecorded videos.

Bown said that sometimes she surprises her classroom with visits.

Communication is ongoing, allowing students to connect with their mentors on a personal level. Even after the program ends, communication often continues through social media.

“Too often we put our people doing amazing things ... on pedestals ... making their feats seem almost superhuman,” Mesler said. “We bring people off of those pedestals and make students realize these people are just like them. With this, a strong relationship is formed.”

Making goals seem reachable and making celebrities seem just as human as the person next to you helps students begin to realize what they can accomplish.

The mentors build relationships not only with the students, but with the teachers, too. The volunteer mentors and educators work together. The athletes and teachers continuously communicate, allowing them to intertwine their lessons.

“Classroom Champions supports teachers to implement character education into whichever part of their classroom they see the need,” Mesler said.

A teacher of Northwood Academy in Philadelphia recounts an experience she had with Lex Gillette, a Paralympics silver medalist.

In a video, Gillette talks about friendship and the importance of support and choosing good friends. “After watching Lex’s video, we discussed the difference between a really good friend and a simple acquaintance,” Julieann Cappuccino said. “This conversation led into a great opportunity to reinforce to the students that sometimes there will be those people that no matter how hard you try or want to be friends, personalities just don’t allow for that to happen. When faced with situations like this, we discussed that it is important to recognize that and to always remember to be respectful toward those people.”

Mesler is looking to expand the program. The application period for the next school year is open. To apply, visit classroomchampions.org/apply.

Hannah Nathanson is a freshman at City Honors.