Published: Tuesday, July 17, 2012, 4:56 PM    

Updated: Tuesday, July 17, 2012, 5:10 PM

Harry Plumer


HOLYOKE — On the word “Go!” the thirteen kids begin their scramble toward the other end of the gym. Soccer balls at their feet, the children are racing to dribble from one end of the basketball court at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Holyoke to the other.

Joyous shrieks from the racing kids are punctuated by the deep, booming laughs of the UMass football players scattered across the court.

Five-year-old Jose Santos of Holyoke is off to a good start, but he runs into UMass Defensive Tackle Charles “Chaz” Thompson near midcourt. The 6’2”, 282-pound Thompson sticks his foot out to steal the ball from Santos, but instead the ball pops straight up, striking Santos straight in the face.

For a split second, Thompson’s face transforms from carefree to horrified, but as Santos tumbles to floor, he giggles and smiles at Thompson. No harm, no foul.

“I probably shouldn’t have done that,” Thompson said afterward. “I was worried there for a second.”

Thompson need not worry. He and his teammates, who are volunteering at the club as part of a service learning class, have brought smiles and more to kids ages 5-13 over the past seven weeks.

“I’ve been very, very pleased with this program,” Holyoke Boys and Girls Club Executive Director Eileen Cavanaugh said. “This has been a long-term success.”

The service learning class is the brainchild of UMass coach Charley Molnar, who has made giving back to the community a major priority of his program. The class was set up by Joan Hopkins, Associate Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Academic Services, and her associate director Tami Drummond, in association with UMass’ Community Engagement and Service Learning office.

According to Drummond, the one-credit class consists of 1 ½ hours per week in the classroom for eight weeks and 20 hours of actual service time at the Boys and Girls Club per student over that same eight-week period. The class has four women’s basketball players and 54 football players.

From all accounts, whether it's Cavanaugh, Drummond, the players or the kids, the class has been a complete success.

“I thought I was just going to make money and work on my craft of football this summer,” Thompson said. “I’ve developed real one-to-one relationships with the kids.”

Those relationships are what Cavanaugh cited as the biggest benefit of this program compared to other one-day camps that UMass has partnered with the Boys and Girls Club for in the past.

“It’s the most meaningful activity,” Cavanaugh said of the bonds formed through the program. “As important as the one-day camps are, and the life experience that is for the kids, it’s too brief.”

Part of what Drummond and Hopkins have stressed in the classroom portion is for the players to communicate the importance of education to the kids, and Cavanaugh felt that they had succeeded in that mission.

“They are positive role models, young men that have found a path to higher education,” Cavanaugh said. “The kids have engaged these athletes and seen how they used that opportunity to create a pathway for kids to college.”

“I try to tell them about academics first,” said Thompson. “Because you can’t get anywhere without academics.”

During the school year, the players spent time helping the kids with their homework. Now that summer camp is in session, it’s soccer, basketball, ping pong and more.

Inside the club, the players are heroes, and Thompson says they’ve enjoyed the celebrity status.

“It’s like we’re Brett Favre or somebody,” he said.

Cavanaugh hopes that status helps the players realize what role they play in the kids’ lives.

“It’s important for (the players) to know that they have an effect on youth and that their activity impacts the community,” she said.

Even if it means an accidental soccer ball in the face. Santos finished the race, and would get revenge. A few minutes later, it was the players who had the balls at their feet and the kids who were trying to stop them. Thompson faced the wrath of three at a time, but managed to fend them off.

“I just love to see the looks on their faces,” Thompson said. “This is fun.”

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