Never doubt the power of a simple act of kindness. That's the lesson of the Burro Buddies program.
Every Friday afternoon, football players at Ridgecrest Burroughs High skip their 55-minute athletic period to spend time at three elementary schools and one middle school, where they tutor and mentor boys and girls in reading, writing and arithmetic.
It's the commitment of Jeff Steinberg, coach of the Burroughs Burros, that all of his players receive a broader understanding of what role they can play in helping to shape their community.
"The point is we're trying to impact kids in different ways," he said. "A lot of coaches talk about what role we have. It's not just about Xs and O's. There's something bigger."
Ridgecrest is a city of 29,000 located in the Mojave Desert, 150 miles north of Los Angeles. It has only one public high school, and Steinberg wants to start influencing students in a positive way with early intervention.
"It's all about letting these kids know us when they're very impressionable," quarterback Karsten Sween said.
The players break up into small groups and carpool to the neighborhood schools.
The first phase of the Burro Buddies program started during football season, with players visiting schools once every three weeks. In the spring, it was expanded to every Friday, and many involved seem thrilled with the results.
"They've done a fantastic job and have already changed some lives," said Ron Carter, principal of Las Flores Elementary School. "I've had kids that will come to school simply because they know the football players will be here."
Sween, a senior headed to Wyoming on a football scholarship, introduced himself to Nathan Leatham, an 8-year-old third-grader at Las Flores. Sween was playing around, pretending he'd lift Nathan off the ground by his ears. The teacher, Kathleen Konopak, came to tears after seeing what happened next.
"He and Nathan had an instant bond," Konopak said. "Nathan looked at him with a big smile and said, 'My dad used to do that, but he died when I was 3.' Karsten heard that, stopped going around to other kids, sat down and worked on a story with Nathan. Nathan talked about it for weeks."
Ron Marker, a 220-pound defensive lineman, has been working with kindergarten students. At first, his size intimidated them.
"When I walked in, they were terrified of me," he said. "One kid had this look, 'Oh my God.' As soon as I started playing games with them, they were more comfortable."
Marker says the best part of his experience is seeing the excitement of students as they learn to spell.
"This one kid had so much fun coming up to tell us how he spelled his name," Marker said.
Some of the Burroughs football players get to play in sandboxes, bringing back memories of their early years. Others are seeing first-hand how challenging it is to influence young boys and girls, making them more sympathetic toward parental responsibilities.
"That's the scary part," Marker said. "My parents had to go through this."
All are receiving lessons in patience and learning to inspire others to succeed in school.
Hayo Carpenter, a wide receiver, was asked by a third-grade teacher to speak to a student who was having trouble following rules.
"I had to sit down and talk to him after school," Carpenter said. "I told him everything would be easier if [he] listened to the teacher. He said he'd try. He's doing a lot better now. I hope I got to him."
Carpenter said his experiences are giving him a new appreciation for teachers.
"I'd say it's tough because different kids have different personalities," he said. "You can't be too lenient because they'll run over you, and you can't be too hard because they'll say you're the meanest teacher."
Konopak said she has been impressed with the maturity of the football players.
"You get a lot of people coming in to help and want to talk," she said. "These players knew how to listen. My kids cheer when the Burroughs players walk in the door. They are so happy to see them."
Each week, teachers present a T-shirt to the student who performs best in class. It's serving as motivation for students and creating excitement for players eager to see smiling faces.
Quarterback David LaFromboise helped award a T-shirt to a third-grader who had been struggling in math, trying to learn how to round up numbers.
"It was a concept he couldn't grasp," LaFromboise said. "As I went over it, he started to get it. It was a good feeling."
Players make up for any lost time on the athletic field by showing up at 6 a.m. on Fridays for weightlifting.
The Burroughs football program has had success, reaching the Southern Section Division VIII final in 2003 and the semifinals last season, but Steinberg has made it clear to players and parents that there are other responsibilities he expects off the field.
"When you join the Burroughs football program, [Steinberg] lets you know being part of the team means being part of the community," said Scott Marker, Ron's father.
The team holds a youth football camp each summer to help establish early ties to families. It cleans the campus as a group and has moved furniture for individuals.
While the elementary and middle-school students are benefiting from their teenage tutors, the football players seem to be gaining self-confidence from being put into situations that require them to provide guidance and serve as role models.
"I'm kind of acquiring some leadership skills," LaFromboise said.
In the end, Sween said, "We won't know the effects until these kids get to high school and tell us what it meant."
Sween, however, won't have to wait until Nathan Leatham reaches high school to learn the impact he has made. It's visible on his face each time he sees Sween.
"He's a really good person," Nathan said.
Eric Sondheimer can be reached at email@example.com.