Release courtesy of the Ohio Dominican University Media Relations Department
Columbus, Ohio - Room 211 in Royal Manor Elementary School brims with energy, even long after class has ended for the day.
A half dozen students are scattered around the class, soaking in math and reading lessons from their after-school tutors, which includes members of the Ohio Dominican baseball team.
In one corner, senior infielder Billy Tecklenburg (Troy, Ohio) helps third-grader Gabe read from the I Survived book series. Gabe speaks slowly, but strongly and clearly, and Billy aids by filling in the words from that Gabe has trouble forming.
In the middle of the room, junior infielder Ryan Rovnak (Poland, Ohio) works on both math and social studies teachings with Ethan, a fifth-grader. A geometry lesson morphs into a reciting of the preamble to the Constitution, which Ethan must memorize. "Tell me one more time, then we're done," Rovnak urges, as Ethan is near flawless with his diction, including a perfect pronunciation of "posterity."
Tecklenburg and Rovnak are two of the 20 Panther baseball players who engage in the weekly individual tutoring sessions with the elementary students. The tutoring, which started as an off-shoot of the Ohio Reads program, has played a critical role in the development of the students at Royal Manor for more than 10 years, said Mary Beth Friedrich, the reading specialist at the school who organizes the volunteer program.
"The kids really bond with the players," said Friedrich, whose son, Jeff Kidd, played baseball at Ohio Dominican from 2001-04.
"Many of the students in the program do not have a male role model in their life, and they need someone to help fill that role," she continued. "Whether the baseball players help in the one-on-one tutoring, or are just there to talk to them, it makes a difference."
The idea for the program at Royal Manor came after Kidd and the Panthers visited schools in Lewiston, Idaho, as part of Ohio Dominican's NAIA World Series trips. It didn't take long after that for Friedrich, Kidd and ODU coach Paul Page to plan the same experience for the local elementary school.
Each October, the Panthers – in full uniform – travel as a team to Royal Manor to read as a group with the students, then split into the individual tutoring partners. Both Tecklenburg, now in his fourth year as part of the program, and Friedrich said that the first visit to the school can be "intimidating," even though the students range in age from kindergarten to sixth grade.
"At first, you really don't know how to interact with the kids, and it's just a shock to be in an elementary school again," Tecklenburg said.
"Many of the players haven't seen a picture book in years," Friedrich added. "It can be tough to adjust."
Once the initial shock wears off, though, a rewarding relationship is built between student and player. After the October group session, half of the team volunteered to stay on as mentors throughout the school year, heading to the school as much as their own class and baseball schedules allow.
Royal Manor has many volunteers who take part in the tutoring program, but the baseball team has always been a popular draw, Friedrich said.
"Kids look up to and admire athletes," she said. "They really connect with the baseball team. They'll always ask, 'When's my baseball player coming in?' Just spending a half hour with them makes the rest of the week go better."
For the players, the opportunity to pass along the same life lessons instilled in them at a young age and give back to the community at the same time makes the experience worthwhile, Tecklenburg said.
"I had a lot of people help me get to where I am today – my parents, coaches and teachers," he said. "The chance to continue that chain is important. You can see how much improvement the kids make throughout the year, and hopefully they will be able to give back when they grow up and pass it along."
The bond developed between the players and students is quickly evident. Rovnak, who has no younger siblings, said that Ethan has almost turned into a little brother of his own.
"The best part is if he's struggling with a math problem and I can help him understand it," Rovnak said. "I see the look on his face when he figures it out, and see how happy he is, and it makes you happy too."
Rovnak encourages Ethan to strive for high grades. "All A's, that's what you need," he tells Ethan after the youngster finishes reciting the preamble again. "Then you'll be rich."
Meanwhile, Tecklenburg continues his reading lesson with Gabe at the other end of the class. Gabe, who did not have a homework assignment today, will pick out a different book each week for the two to read.
When they are done reading, and before the day finally comes to a close, Gabe grabs a Geoboard to play with. The two make shapes on it with rubber bands, including a Pac-Man head.
"Those used to be so much fun," Rovnak says, admiring their handiwork from afar.
"Used to be?" Tecklenburg answers. "They still are!"