Schoolyard champs

Story and Photos by Casey Lessard

They may not have won the national championship Vanier Cup, but the University of Western Ontario Mustangs football team continues to win the hearts of boys and girls at East Williams Public School in Nairn. Several of the team’s players are taking part in a mentorship program to help the children improve their literacy while learning the fundamentals of football.
“One of our students wrote in his journal about his love for football,” says principal Vivienne Bell-McKaig, who spearheaded the program last year.
“We asked if he would like to meet (a player), and he was quite excited about that opportunity. So we wrote a letter inviting the Stangs to our school, and this has grown from a one-buddy opportunity to a whole school mentorship program.”
“It started off small with a couple of guys,” says linebacker and long snapper Conor Elliott, who is a friend of Bell-McKaig’s daughter and leads the program. “It’s blown up and been going strong ever since.
“I love it. I love seeing the kids. Their reading has gone up. It brings you back to why you’re doing what you’re doing. It makes you work harder and when you see how well they’re doing. I’d always wanted to pursue education, but this made it clear in my mind.”
Inspired by Elliott’s commitment to education, left guard Matt Norman is now interested in pursuing education as a career.
“I love helping them learn and it’s a great pleasure,” Norman says. “These kids really look up to us, and I was taken by surprise how they welcome us. It’s a great feeling.”
And it’s a great feeling for McKaig, who has seen progress already.
“There is a gender gap in learning and it really shows in the Grades 4-6 age groups,” she says.
“This shows that boys, and even football players, like to read. We already have seen big, big improvement in our reading and writing scores since these guys have been coming out. It’s improved the motivation and purpose for reading and writing.”
Plus, it brings a smile to the faces of the students.
“It’s really fun,” says Grade 5 student Adam Galloway, “because they’re really smart and it’s fun to play with them and read with them.”
The program also reminds the players of the importance of school.
“It makes us realize we have to buckle down at school,” Elliott says. “It’s a good reality check.”