There was a shy seventh-grade boy sitting at his desk in the far back of the classroom, head down, looking bored and uninterested.
Then Loyola High kicker Conrad Ukropina walked through the door. Suddenly, it was as if darkness turned to light and the boy became energized.
"Your hair is longer," he told Ukropina, remembering him from a visit in January.
For 30 minutes, Ukropina and another Loyola football player, Eamon McOsker, gave an economics lesson to a small group of students at Hillsides, a Pasadena-based center that helps educate youths who were abused or need special attention. In another classroom was Stanford-bound shotputter Nick Budincich and Michigan-bound student Joe Gaule.
Going out into the community and volunteering is a requirement every Loyola senior must fulfill, but this project is a pilot program run by economics teacher Brian Held in an attempt to teach his own advanced placement economics students lessons while also passing along ideas to schools with fewer resources. Of the 84 students in his class, about three-quarters go back to a school site.
"You're guaranteeing yourself a life of poverty if you drop out of high school," Held said. "I thought our guys could take what they're learning in economics and teach lessons to schools. They have enthusiasm and the connection with kids. They are reinforcing economic ideas they learn in class."
Ukropina, a straight-A student headed to Stanford to become a punter and entrepreneur, lives not far from Hillsides but didn't know it existed until he volunteered as part of a community service project. He returned last month to offer an economic lesson in "opportunity cost."
The kids were excited to see him. There were high-fives and smiles.
Most important, there was real interaction between Ukropina, his fellow teenage teachers and the students. They seemed to listen and understand the lesson.
"If there's one thing to take away from today's lesson in opportunity cost, it's there's no such thing as a free lunch, meaning every single cost has an alternative, and with each choice you make, you want to make the best decision possible for you, because by taking one choice, choice A, you're missing out on choice B," Ukropina said.
The players brought props, footballs and toys and made the lesson fun. I had to wonder why economics couldn't be this interesting when I went to high school.
"This experience has been incredible," Ukropina said. "It makes you appreciate teachers and everything they do connecting with the kids."
Lots of schools have imposed community service requirements for graduation. But the key is actually getting the students to learn from their experience, taking them out of their comfort zone and giving them an opportunity to see how to make a difference.
Some of these athletes weren't comfortable standing in front of a class of junior high students they didn't know and teaching a lesson. But once they saw how the students were listening and wanting to learn, their instincts and leadership skills took over.
"Whenever you can help somebody out, it's a great thing to do," said McOsker, who's headed to Notre Dame.
Ukropina seemed a natural in getting the kids to react and listen. He looked into their eyes, gave them positive reinforcement and was genuine in his commitment to help.
He spent three weeks at Hillsides during his first visit.
"Some of the kids started crying on my last day," he said. "It was touching. It's something I've never experienced. It was eye-opening to see."
Even athletes who perform under pressure in front of hundreds of people can learn something new by being thrust into an environment they've never encountered. That's the point of community service, and it can have a lasting affect on everyone involved.