BLOOMINGTON — Nine-year-old Xander Grismore dressed in his favorite Cardinals baseball jersey in anticipation of meeting a college baseball coach and playing with real college players.
But, sadly, that extra time getting ready and looking for his baseball mitt made him late that day for the Elevate program at the Irving Elementary School gym. That meant he had to watch from the sidelines while his classmates worked with players from the Heartland Community College Hawks.
“They know they have to be on time,” said Randy Johnson, an Irving teacher who developed Elevate, a two-day-a-week, character-building program to inspire and encourage the students.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, about 30 third-, fourth- and fifth-grade Irving boys, recommended by their teachers, meet at 7:40 a.m. The program starts with a 10- to 15-minute conversation followed by athletic activities.
“This program invites the community to invest their time and talents in these young men. Our goal is to help build honorable young men of character,” Johnson said.
There is a waiting list to join.
“I like getting good grades and have respect for the teachers,” said fifth-grader Chris Mason of what he likes about his school and Elevate.
To Johnson, Elevate is important in a school where 81 percent of the 358 students come from low-income families.
“Irving is a place that cares about kids,” Johnson added. “There are a million things going on in this building. This is just another way the kids know they are worthwhile.”
In addition to using video clips and books, Johnson invites speakers from the community, including Illinois State University men’s basketball coach Dan Muller, who attended with two players, and Chris Hawkins, Normal Community West High School’s baseball coach.
“We emphasize kindness, positive choices, manners, promptness, personal responsibility and other character traits,” the teacher said.
Last week the guests were Heartland pitching coach Josh Kauton and three of his players.
Johnson told his students that Kauton has high expectations for his players.
“They do things the right way,” Johnson said. “As a father I want my sons to go to schools where they do things the right way.”
The college ballplayers told the students that eligibility to play sports is good incentive to keep out of trouble.
Catcher A.J. Fink of Carbondale said he got a wake-up call when his detentions in middle school kept him from going on the eighth-grade trip. “I worked harder,” he said.
Infielder Andres Sopena of Huntley said you have to sacrifice to do well at something. “I love sleep,” he confided to the students, but he gives up some sleep to do homework and train.
Working hard does not mean someone is perfect, but good players keep trying. If a professional baseball player hits .300, he’s doing well, but that means he fails to get on base seven out of 10 times at bat, said pitcher Frank Waliczek of Barrington.
“Be focused on the future,” he said.
Johnson asked the students why the college players took the time to speak to them.
Fifth-grader Rashad Wilson raised his hand and said, “We are important.”