February 9, 2010

Service with a Smile

By Aaron Todd

The following story originally appeared in the Winter 2009-10 issue of the Brown Bear Magazine.


With more than 350 children from pre-school to fifth grade classrooms in the Vartan Gregorian Elementary School auditorium, Colin Grimsey had the attention of nearly all the students in his charge on Wednesday, October 21, 2009. The youngish-looking principal lauded Brown’s student-athletes, scores of whom were also in the audience. Those student-athletes in attendance and hundreds more, work with the children in his school on a daily basis. Little faces fixed their gazes on their principal, listening to every word he said.


Then Bruno walked in.


A remark by Grimsey caused the crowd to break into applause, but the once-quiet auditorium never quite settled down. Heads swiveled toward the back of the auditorium, where Brown’s mascot stood, and news that Bruno had entered the building spread around the room like a wildfire. Grimsey finally gave in to the collective will of the children.


“The Brown Bear is here, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, and kids of all ages (including some teachers, coaches and student-athletes) broke out in loud cheers of celebration. Even Grimsey, who could have easily been upset at the disturbance, broke into a wide smile.

When David Roach returned to Brown as the athletic director in 1990 (he had been the swimming coach from 1978-1986 before coaching for four years at Tennessee), he started to look for ways to get Brown’s coaches and student-athletes more involved in the local community.


“We wanted to dispel the notion that Ivy League students stay up on the hill and don’t give back,” says Roach, now the director of athletics at Colgate University. “I drove by the Fox Point Elementary School every day on the way to work, and I thought it would be really neat if Brown athletics had a relationship with the school, because they were right in our neighborhood.”
On October 23, 1991, the Brown athletic department officially adopted Fox Point as part of the national “Adopt-a-School” program. The kickoff ceremony that day was remarkably similar to the one held this fall, almost 18 years to the day later.


“It brought tears to my eyes,” Roach says of that first kickoff. “Not only was Fox Point a school in our neighborhood, but at the time, it was also the only school in the district that had access for special needs children. I can still remember all the kids up on stage wearing T-shirts the colors of the rainbow, singing the Rainbow Song.”


Roach’s initial plan was to have two days a year, one in the fall and one in the spring, when Brown’s student-athletes and coaches would visit the school for a special school-wide project or celebration. While he encouraged teams to be more involved, it was not a requirement. Student-athletes and coaches, however, took the relationship to an entirely new level, visiting their classrooms on a regular basis. Tara Harrington ’94, now Brown’s head field hockey coach, was a sophomore when Brown’s athletic department adopted Fox Point.


“I worked with a boy named David on math,” says Harrington. “It was incredibly rewarding because he was so excited to see me and I could see how the one-on-one tutoring impacted his skills, but I also had the opportunity to form a relationship with him. I remember the next year when we went back we were in the auditorium for the kickoff and he jumped out of his seat to come hug me.”


As the years passed, Brown’s student-athletes and coaches continued to get more involved. In 1997, when Vartan Gregorian announced that he was stepping down as Brown’s president, the school’s name was changed to honor the special relationship between Brown and Fox Point.
While nearly two decades have passed since that first dedication ceremony, there has been no letup in the efforts of Brown’s coaches or student-athletes at the school. Each team takes pride in its classroom, with one or two student-athlete volunteers coordinating with their classroom teachers to set a schedule and objectives for the year. And while the faces of the student-athletes, coaches, teachers and children have changed over the years, one thing remains constant: the satisfaction that both Brown’s student-athletes and the children feel when they work together.


“When we walk into the classroom, the kids stand up and come running over and say ‘Brown football! Brown football,’ and they give us hugs,” says Paul Jasinowski ’10, who coordinates the football team’s schedule in two of Vartan Gregorian’s special needs classrooms. “They are always excited when we get into the classroom. It’s a really welcoming environment.”


Jarrod Schlenker ’10, a backup goalkeeper on the men’s soccer team, started going to Vartan Gregorian Elementary on a regular basis last year. As a result, he has built a strong relationship with the students in Eileen Afonso’s fourth-grade classroom.


“We open the door and try to poke our heads in a little bit, and then all the kids start yelling and they jump out of their seats and want to get high fives,” says Schlenker. “Part of me feels bad for disrupting everything, but another part of me thinks it’s great. Ms. Afonso always asks, ‘Who would like to work with a Brown student today?’ and everyone’s hand goes up.”


Director of Athletics and Physical Education Michael Goldberger says that the lessons that Brown’s student-athletes learn at Vartan Gregorian may be just as valuable as those learned in the classroom, or on the practice field.


“When our student-athletes visit Vartan Gregorian, it gives them a grounding that I think some students could lose when they get wrapped up in the demands that they face academically and athletically,” says Goldberger. “It’s so important for our students to see that they are a part of this community, and working with the kids at Vartan Gregorian, and seeing them be so grateful that somebody is there to be helpful and to be a friend, is so meaningful for everyone involved.”
Going to Vartan Gregorian, even for just 30 minutes, often gives Brown’s student-athletes a much needed break from life on campus.


“There is kind of a bubble being a student-athlete,” says Sasha Van Muyen ’10, a women’s hockey player who volunteers in Mary-Fran Honeyman’s fifth-grade classroom. “You spend most of your time either in class or at practice, preparing for an exam or a game. Everyone on the women’s hockey team loves going because it gets us out into the community, and we always have so much fun.”


“One of the things that just knock the socks off the kids is that somebody who doesn’t have to cares about them,” says Honeyman, who has served as the liaison to Brown’s athletic department for the last five years.


The women’s hockey program, and in particular, its coach, goes beyond just giving time. Head Coach Digit Murphy, a mother of four children, started bringing in clothes, jackets, and anything else that her own kids had outgrown for the teachers to distribute to children in the school who might need them. Other coaches and some student-athletes have also contributed items to what is now called “Digit’s Closet” at the school.


Murphy is a natural with kids. Early in the fall, she visited Honeyman’s classroom with a big bag of action figures, but was sure to tell the kids that they had to earn them.


“She’s tough,” says Honeyman. “She has high expectations for the kids, and we have high expectations for the kids too.”


Those high expectations have translated into excellent performance. Vartan Gregorian is a traditionally high-performing school, as recognized by the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. While it’s impossible to determine how much Brown’s presence impacts the performance of students in the school, Grimsey insists that the two are related.


“The impact is phenomenal, it’s immeasurable,” says Grimsey. “Our kids come from all different kinds of backgrounds, and through this program they are exposed to the finest role models in the world. That translates to every part of their life. They know they can achieve what they set their minds to.”


Grimsey is in his second year at Vartan Gregorian, and one of the reasons he was drawn to the school was its partnership with Brown Athletics. Harrington, meanwhile, has seen the program grow over the last 18 years.


“There are a lot of incredible people at the Vartan Gregorian school that love and care about the students there,” says Harrington. “At Brown, we have a lot of incredible people who love and care about the students here. There is a love of learning at both institutions; there is a shared sense of learning and responsibility to mentorship and leadership. It’s a great match.”


A great match indeed, and all involved plan to continue to work together for many years to come.

Aaron Todd is the Communications and Marketing Manager for the Brown University Sports Foundation.