Boys Big and Small: The Men's Hockey Team as Mentors to Local Elementary Schools

January 3, 2006

"Doctor! Doctor! I need the doctor!"

Scott Bartlett '08, a Middlebury College men's hockey player, is writhing on the floor and waving his arms emphatically in the hopes of attracting some attention. But it's not a medic he needs; it's the magic touch of eight-year-old Jordan Codding, and the histrionics are all part of a lively game called Doctor Dodgeball.

Scott is a volunteer mentor, and every week he and a handful of his Middlebury men's hockey teammates head up the mountain to Ripton Elementary School to visit with Jordan and other boys. The group is organized by Darwin Hunt '07, who calls his crew "Panther Pals," and includes Darwin, Scott, Tom Maldonado '08, Jed MacDonald '08, Sam Driver '08, Mickey Gilchrist '08, Justin Gaines '08, Evgeny Saidachev '07, Rob MacIntyre '08, and Jocko DeCarolis '07. Sometimes they hang out and talk with their young friends, and sometimes they bombard each other with colored rubber balls. But no matter what they do together, their weekly visits are the highlight of the day for everyone involved.

"We love this part of the week," exclaims Jocko. "We get to drive away from all the stress of school and practice and spend an hour just being kids again." Fifth-grader Walter O'Dell couldn't agree more. "When our mentors are here," he says, "we get to leave class and play!" For Walter's classmate Nico Mackey, it's a chance to spend time with some pretty important people. "These guys are hockey stars," he says. "We go to all the college games and cheer them on. It's pretty neat that they come up here to hang out with us."

According to Darwin, the group of mentors carpools up to Ripton at least once a week to spend some quality time with their charges. "We hang out, talk about what's going on in their lives, and play," he says. "It's a ton of fun, and a great way for us to be connected to the community."

That connection is one that comes with the game, so to speak. The team's head coach, Bill Beaney, is a dedicated community volunteer and longtime supporter of community service for his players. "Every hockey player is involved in some kind of mentoring," he says. "It's something I discuss with these guys even before they arrive here as students. I want them to know just how important it is for them to participate in our larger community. These are the kids and families that fill the stands for their home games. I want the players to have that perspective." Ripton is just one of several Addison County schools where members of the men's hockey team serve as mentors, and Beaney often shares his community-minded perspective with other college coaches. "I tell them what an amazing experience it is for the players to be involved in these kinds of programs. The payback for them is the feeling they get from being involved - and being responsible as role models in the community."

The mentoring program is one that began years ago through an affiliation with Cornwall-based Foundation for Excellent Schools (FES), a national nonprofit organization that partners with public schools in communities to raise student aspirations and performance. Though FES is no longer involved with the mentoring that the men's hockey players do, its president, Rick Dalton, is thrilled to know the program continues under Beaney's guidance. "Bill has always been a tremendous supporter of mentoring," says Dalton. "It's a terrific leadership opportunity for these athletes, and means so much to the communities they serve."

Though the college boys emphasize having fun with their elementary counterparts, they also accept and fully understand the responsibilities that come with being a mentor. At one point during the dodgeball game, a young boy gets hurt and becomes upset at his friend for "hitting him on purpose." The older mentors are quick to diffuse the situation, and Darwin quietly takes both boys aside to work it out while the game carries on. These are the moments when this is more than just a way to get out of class for an hour. "We make a commitment to these kids when we volunteer to be mentors," says Darwin. "The more they get to know us, the more comfortable they feel. They start to open up to us and talk about things. That's a level of trust we have to respect."

Back in the dodgeball game, Scott Bartlett is still shouting for a doctor. Jordan is the "doctor" on Scott's team and, according to the rules, once you've been pegged by the other team, you have to stay down until your doctor tags you. Thankfully, Jordan notices Scott and within seconds both boys are back in the action. Finally the game winds down and the group of sweaty, red-faced boys - big and small - slaps hands in mutual congratulations (though it's hard to tell who, if anyone, actually won). The mentors say goodbye to their young friends and, with collective shouts of "See you at the game," they're off back down the mountain to the Middlebury campus. And, sure enough, at the game that night, there are plenty of beaming young faces to cheer them on.

-- Blair Kloman --