In the President’s Suite, a fifth-grade boy announced that he was making a commitment to stop being in the red zone—part of the color scale used in his elementary school to denote behavior types, red being bad behaviors. This boy had decided that he wanted to become accomplished and have the opportunity to come to a school like Christopher Newport University. This was the moment that senior Hector Feliciano-Ayala, a member of the men’s basketball team, knew he was making a difference as a mentor.
“You go through a program and you often wonder if you’re actually making a difference, if these kids are actually learning,” Feliciano-Ayala said. “When he said that, it was good for us because we were like ‘Something stuck with him.’ They understand the concept and they’re going to commit themselves to their betterment.”
Feliciano-Ayala is one member of the men’s basketball team participating in S.L.A.M., a new mentoring program at Hidenwood Elementary School that the men’s basketball team is pioneering. S.L.A.M. stands for Students, Leaders, Athletes, Mentors.
“When we started thinking about a male mentoring program, the analogy S.L.A.M., just using the word ‘S.L.A.M.,’ everybody knows about a S.L.A.M.-dunk,” Roland Ross, men’s basketball assistant coach and athletic outreach program coordinator, said. “How can you be as powerful like that in somebody’s life? It directly coordinates with our students, and we strongly encourage them to be leaders, and they’re our athletes and they’re mentoring. So, all that ties in.”
Around seven players, almost half of the men’s basketball team, participate in S.L.A.M., which is geared toward at-risk fifth-grade students. The players use an individualized approach with the students, meeting with them nine weeks out of the semester to spend time with them, talk about life lessons and teach them coping strategies.
“We talk about basketball and we mix that in with a life lesson and how it applies to us on the court and how we apply it in life at the same time as well” sophomore men’s basketball player Tra Benefield said. “We talk to them about the same values that we used on a daily basis, how we use it on the court and how it’s the same.”
Head men’s basketball coach John Krikorian said that his players try to mix basketball terms with their life lessons, since many of the kids in the program can relate to sports, particularly basketball, which he said is very popular in the area.
“Every practice we have a quote of the day, and it’s usually a life quote, not just a basketball quote,” Krikorian said. “We have our own language with our basketball team, related to basketball, but also some of that stuff relates off the court, and they use that in teaching these kids some life skills. It’s pretty neat when they come back and say, ‘Oh, Coach, we used the quote yesterday. It talked about handling adversity.’ The kids really learn from it, and that’s really neat to see our guys able to do that.”
Both coaches and players agree that S.L.A.M. has been a success so far, and the players participating in it are dedicated to seeing improvement in the students’ lives. Additionally, the team has received requests from other elementary schools in the area who have heard about the program.
“Our motto as a basketball program is, we’re tougher together,” Ross said. “When we go into our sessions with our guys in the mentoring program, we always end with that. Our players here have really bought into being a part of S.L.A.M.. These guys are early, and they want to stay, and they’ve made a difference in these young boys lives.”
Krikorian added that the students are only asked to dedicate one hour of their time each week for nine weeks, totaling nine hours a semester. However, in that short amount of time, he believes the players can make a big difference in these students’ lives.
“We really just want to make sure Christopher Newport, our athletic department and the basketball program are doing our part to be engaged in the community, and that’s going to be a win-win both for the community and for our student athletes,” Krikorian said.
After a few weeks of visiting, when the players walk into Hidenwood Elementary School in the morning, the fifth graders treat Benefield as if he was Kobe Bryant, Ross said.
“They love us,” Benefield said. “They always ask us when we have games and what we do in our games and how many points we scored. They want to know everything. It’s good that they look up to us like that. It’s very cool that they think of us that way.”
For Feliciano-Ayala, the S.L.A.M. program has given him a fresh perspective of the Newport News community, and has learned about his teammates along the way.
“I think it gives you a different perspective on life,” Feliciano-Ayala said. “It helps you to feel grateful and fortunate for what you have, and I think it has improved the basketball team in terms of unity. Going out and making a difference in these kids has helped us to be united, to have good chemistry, and at the same time, learn about each other a little more, because we also have to share stories. Being supportive and being united, that’s been key for us.”
As an incentive for the students participating in the S.L.A.M. program, at the end of the semester they had the opportunity to visit CNU and participate in a basketball practice.
“When they came on the campus tour, they had a chance to come and practice and be a part of practice, stand on the sideline, get in the huddle,” Ross said. He added that in the spring semester, the coaches are hoping to be able to have a charter bus pick up the students from the community and bring them to campus for a game. “That will be real, real neat for them,” Ross said. “Some of these kids are from such challenging situations that their parents can’t come to games with them.”
In addition to S.L.A.M., the basketball team and the athletic department participate in a number of other volunteer activities. According to Ross, athletics does a number of activities at the beginning of the semester, such as a Kids First program, where athletes stand on busy street corners in Newport News holding signs to remind people to drive safely and watch out for students and buses. About 100 athletes from several teams participate in that program.
“There’s been a commitment from the university to have somebody who is giving all of our athletes, which is a huge population on campus, the opportunity to reach out to our community,” Krikorian said. “So, that’s really university wide, and Coach Ross handles it for the department. Being an assistant basketball coach as well, our kids are a little closer to it and a little more engaged, we hope. We believe it’s very important for our kids to give back in that way.”
Athletics also organized a food drive on campus and around the community, spearheaded by the men’s basketball team, which took place leading up to Thanksgiving. Additionally, the men’s basketball team as a whole participates in throughout the year, including a visit to Hidenwood Retirement Community this year. These single-day volunteer events are mandatory for the team, whereas the weekly ones like S.L.A.M., are strongly encouraged.
“I just think it’s very cool that the CNU athletes are so well rounded,” Feliciano-Ayala said. “I think it’s the vision of CNU as a whole, to make everyone a well-rounded person, and that just shows with athletics, because many of them, you would think it is mainly PLP doing it through the community service hours, but many of them are not in PLP. They just do it because they want to.”