UMass Amherst Athletes Exercising Some New Skills at Wildwood Elementary School

AMHERST, Mass. - Eight varsity athletes at the University of Massachusetts have been spending several hours each week this spring with some of their smallest fans – children at the Wildwood Elementary School in Amherst.

Seven members of the men’s hockey team and one member of the women’s basketball team assist teachers, tutor, and read to children, while earning credits toward their own undergraduate degrees.

The program was organized by Joe Mallen, UMass men’s hockey coach; Rob Kirsch, an assistant coach; and Richard P. Halgin, professor of psychology. It combines community service and academic work, and is a way to help orient the first-year student-athletes to life at UMass, Mallen says.

Athletes attended workshops during the fall semester, must meet regularly with Halgin, keep a journal, and write a paper about their experiences at the school. "I felt the first-year players needed to have other people they can rely on besides their coaches," Mallen says. "The program is a way to get them acclimated to the larger community. It also helps the players with their personal growth and helps form relationships between the children and our student-athletes."

Mallen says the program is the first step in his long-term plan to require all members of the hockey team to participate in some type of community service during their time at the University. Halgin says teachers at the Wildwood school have been enthusiastic. "In fact, after the program got started, we began getting calls asking if any more players were available," Halgin says.

Barbara Fukushima, a first-grade teacher who is working with hockey player Nathan Sell, agrees. "It’s nice to have male role models in an elementary school," she says. The athletes say they enjoy working with the children. Forward R.J. Gates, who visits Dana Townsend’s third-grade class each week, says he showed up for a class party that wasn’t part of his regular schedule recently, and received a standing ovation from the children when he walked into the room.

For goaltender Markus Helanen, the time he spends in a sixth-grade class reminds him of his brother who is back in his native Finland. "It’s also nice to see that American kids are similar to the kids at home," Helanen says. Besides Sell, Gates, and Helanen, other participating first-year hockey players are Kevin Tucker, Ray Geever, John McDonough, and Matt Smith, who has since left UMass for the NHL. Rekiya Penton of the women’s basketball team is also in the program.