CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson Athletics has just concluded the third semester of its Paw Pals mentoring program, which is a partnership between Clemson’s Student-Athlete Development department and Ravenel Elementary School in Seneca, S.C. The program pairs a Clemson student-athlete mentor with a third-, fourth- or fifth-grade student, and the student-athlete makes regular visits to the school to meet with the child during lunch, recess or a break in class. The student-athletes engage in conversation with the children about school, grades, friends, family and any other topics the kids may want to discuss.
The program began during the fall semester of 2017, when Ravenel principal Angie Henderson contacted Clemson Student-Athlete Development with a request for a few female student-athletes to talk to their fifth-grade girls. After she spoke with Clemson’s Community Outreach Ambassadors, the idea for the mentorship program was born. The school’s guidance counselor, Sheridan Crouch, pairs the students with the student-athletes, and also coordinates and communicates the dates and times for the meetings.
“Mrs. Crouch is the guidance counselor and the one that organizes everything!” said Tori Niemann, Clemson’s Assistant Director of Student-Athlete Development/Community Outreach. “She has a list of students that she pairs with our student-athletes, and does her best to intentionally pair up the mentees and mentors based on common experiences and interests. She coordinates all times for mentoring and communicates any schedule changes. Simply put, we would not be able to run this program as smoothly without Mrs. Crouch and the time and effort she puts into this.”
After 14 Tiger student-athletes took part in the Fall of 2017, the number of mentors jumped to 40 and 36 during the spring and fall semesters of 2018, respectively, and is expected to grow again in the Spring of 2019. Two student-athletes, rower Maura Chozick and middle-distance runner John Lewis, have served as mentors all three semesters, and several others have served as mentors for two-straight semesters.
“This program has been a success because it truly came from a need,” said Niemann. “Principal Henderson started with a simple ask, and once she spoke with our Clemson Community Outreach Ambassadors about the importance of mentoring elementary students, our mentorship program was born. The program is impactful to both the Ravenel students as well as the Clemson student-athletes, because of the meaningful relationships that are built each week. It is awesome to see the connections the 18-22-year-old student-athletes are able to make with the third, fourth and fifth graders.”
Darron Coley, a senior from Centreville, Va. on the men’s track and field team, and Haley Schueppert, a redshirt freshman soccer player from Highlands Ranch, Colo., recently sat down to discuss their experiences.
Why did you get involved with Paw Pals?
Darron: “I decided to get involved with Paw Pals because I had often done the Tiger Read events where we go to an elementary school and read to the class. While I enjoyed that, I never felt like I made a true connection with any of the kids in the class. I saw this program as a way to make a connection that these kids would remember years later.”
Haley: “I jumped at the chance to be around younger kids again. I grew up as the oldest of my siblings and all my cousins, and I really miss being around all of them. They all really looked up to me and I wanted to make that same impact I did on them on one of the kids at the elementary school.”
What have you learned about your mentee and how has your relationship grown since you started working with him or her?
Darron: “I have two mentees and it’s definitely proven that no two kids are the same. I started to meet with them last spring and I have definitely seen our relationships grow as I feel like I have taken on a big brother role. They have become much more open to sharing what they are going through or what they are concerned about, whether that is bullying, stuff going on at home, or questions about what middle school, high school, or college are like.”
Haley: “It’s something you have to go into being completely open minded, since your mentee may be very open and talkative, or they may not say anything at all. No matter what, as student-athletes, we are superheroes to the kids, even if to us, we are just present and there to listen to everything that is going on in our mentee’s life. Over the course of the semester, my mentee has opened up at lot, and has made me feel that she appreciates me being there, which is more than I could have asked for going into this experience.”
What have you learned about yourself and/or how have you benefited from this experience?
Darron: “My dad is a really big mentor in my life so I see this as a way of paying it forward. One of the biggest things I’ve learned is that you may come across situations that you don’t have the right words for. However, if you just show that you care, it can be even more powerful than saying the right words.”
Haley: “Talking to my mentee reminds me of all of the things that I easily forget to be grateful for every day, like going to college and being able playing a sport since I was her age. I often get really caught up in all of it, and spending time with her and talking to her in the school helps my mind to stay refreshed. I always leave feeling like I benefited from the conversation as much as I can only hope that she did.”