WARSAW – It’s an annual tradition that Grace’s basketball players enjoy nearly as much as the game itself.
The service projects, a component of the NCCAA Basketball Championships, kicked off Tuesday morning throughout the Warsaw area. The objective of the projects are simple, which gets the 16 teams involved in the men’s and women’s basketball tournament hosted by Grace College, into the community to serve above just the game of basketball. The unique opportunity had Grace’s men serving Tuesday morning at Madison Elementary, one of its preferred destinations.
Having had huge successes in season’s past, Grace returned to the Madison campus to help in the classrooms, talk about their lives as basketball players, and even play a little Spike Ball in gym class.
“The big thing is the elementary kids catching on with the college kids so they can start to connect a vision to what they may want to do someday,” said Grace College men’s basketball head coach Jim Kessler, who stood inside and outside classrooms like a proud dad at times, and taking questions the next minute from curious onlookers. “A lot of these guys have little brothers and sisters, and really, my guys here are just big kids. Our men really enjoy this. They are good with the kids. It’s a riot to see a kindergartner look up to them and just light up. It’s a great chance to give back and maybe be a role model for them.”
Madison principal Ben Barkey, who has been a host for Grace athletes in year’s past in his classrooms, was more than happy to host the onsite service project again. Madison is one of 16 sites hosting teams from both the men’s and women’s tournament, each with an opportunity to serve for a couple hours at the Warsaw Community Elementary Schools, the Salvation Army, Kiddie Kollege, Combined Community Services, Grace Village Retirement Community and Heartline Pregnancy Center.
“It’s so simple for us to do, it’s a win for us all around,” Barkey said. “We get college kids in the classroom working with students and every teacher loves that experience. It’s not hard pairing the basketball players with the kids. It’s what elementary is all about, right, is having these experiences that are a-typical. All of the college teams that I’ve worked with have always been great to work with.
“The younger kids don’t know any different. To them, these are top-notch, professional athletes. So they get starry eyed which is great. And how often does a college basketball player get to sit side-by-side with an elementary first grader and help them out? A nice change of pace for everybody.”
One such instance was in a sixth grade classroom where Kessler wanted Grace junior Charlie Warner to speak to the kids. Warner, a 4.0 GPA CoSIDA Academic All-American, talked about his classroom work in working to become a CPA. A few kids took interest, but one question brought the most reaction.
“How tall are you?”
Warner responded, “6-5”.
Over half the class gasped. Then a spirited debate broke out about whether LeBron James was taller than Steph Curry, or if Curry was taller than Kevin Hart. Warner settled the debate, much to the chagrin of the young pup who insisted Hart was taller, that LeBron was 6-8 and Hart was shorter than Curry.
But that’s what the on-site is all about. Grace basketball manager Jon Opiela was all-in for his time in a kindergarten classroom.
“We all just want to make an impact on the community and help out the kids as best as we can,” said Opiela, pausing to take a drink of his pretend tea and donuts his kindergarten friends served him at the tiny table cafe. “Obviously, it’s different than the everyday life. Guys like Haden (Deaton) want to be teachers so he’s in his element right now.”
Opiela paused again to help organize the toy bunny rabbits and clean up his pretend meal as the kids shifted activities in the classroom.
“We all look forward to this. We look forward to it every year. It’s really nice to be able to take some time out away from just straight basketball to have a chance to take a mental break and have some fun with these kids.”