CHICAGO – During the summer of 2016, University of Chicago head men's basketball coach Mike McGrath sought out alumnus Paul Riskus for a lunch sit-down. The purpose wasn't just to catch up and reminisce. The goal was to create a vision for how Maroon men's basketball could connect with youth in the community.
It was perfect timing for Riskus. A 2011 graduate of the university, he was poised to enter his first year as assistant principal at Walt Disney Magnet Elementary School. Riskus previously played collegiate basketball for the Maroons under McGrath's tutelage. As an educator, he knew how impactful a mentorship partnership could be between collegiate athletes and the school-aged children who looked up to them.
Four years later, the bond between UChicago men's basketball and Disney Elementary has grown stronger than ever. Even through the COVID-19 pandemic, the Maroons have stayed engaged in an effort to encourage growth and celebrate successes among their young mentees.
Disney Elementary is located near Uptown on the north side of Chicago. With nearly 1,600 students, it is the largest school in the Chicago Public Schools system servicing preschool through eighth grade. Another of its unique aspects is the diversity of the student population. Kids attend from all across Chicago, from as far away as Englewood, Austin and South Shore. The diversity of perspectives and personalities in the classroom was one of the big draws for Riskus. Recently wrapping up his fourth year at Disney, Riskus earned his doctorate in education and was named principal of the school in March 2020.
The timing felt right for McGrath in 2016 to initiate a deeper connection to the city's youth. "Our student-athletes are incredibly talented, and Paul and I wanted to create an opportunity for them to share their talents with students at a very impressionable age," said the veteran coach. "They have great messages for youth; they communicate very well and in a manner that is very approachable."
Location proved crucial as well in Riskus' mind. "One thing that's important to me is equity," Riskus said. "You can provide equity through opportunity. The University of Chicago is located on the south side, and so many of our kids live on the south side. So for them to participate in an after-school program on a Saturday that's a couple miles from their house, where it's easy for them to get there, that's important. We really believed in mentorship, not only for my fifth through eighth graders, but also Coach McGrath's athletes. What a great experience for college kids to be able to get to know different students from all over Chicago. … We tried it and it's been thriving for four years."
The mentorship program has taken on several different facets over the past few years. UChicago men's and women's basketball revived the Midway Classic – a mid-November invitational that features seven to eight collegiate teams playing contests over a three-day span. The Maroons invite elementary and middle schools from the neighboring communities, including Disney Elementary, to pack the Ratner Athletics Center gym and watch the action. Their visit also features a tour of campus, lunch in the dining halls and an opportunity to learn more about college in general. The initiative pulls in collaborators from across the university in the Neighborhood Schools Program, College Admissions and Campus Dining.
Additionally, the Maroon coaches and players visit the local public schools to speak and interact with the students. The players frequently read to the kids, talk about the importance of literacy, share about life as a successful student-athlete, and discuss the approach that has put them in position to accomplish their academic and athletic goals.
On a monthly basis throughout the academic year, Disney students come back to the university campus to participate in a basketball clinic, followed by small-group conversations between the students and players. Some of the focus includes developing social and emotional skills that they can use throughout their academic careers.
While visits to the Hyde Park campus are exciting for the young students, Riskus also feels it is equally valuable when the basketball players are able to come out to Disney in person to interact with them in their everyday setting. In recent times, UChicago women's basketball has also begun a mentorship outreach several times per year to connect with Disney's female students.
The basketball clinics also produced an unintended benefit for the parents. "I was realizing we were having these sessions and a lot of the parents would be waiting on the university campus to pick up their students," said Riskus. "These sessions were about two hours long, so I thought, what a great opportunity to have a parent meeting while the kids are in their mentorship programs. It definitely attracted a whole new group of parents because the proximity made it easier for them to come. The first parent meeting, we had about 60 people there. It really brought this family element to it that was pretty powerful and cool."
The first cohort that went through the mentorship program are now entering their senior year of high school. Riskus knows there are a couple students in that group that want to attend the University of Chicago or a like-minded institution because of the experience. "They knew the type of school they wanted," he said, "and I think it really influenced their decisions on where they're applying, and throughout high school they were able to set goals for themselves."
The mentorship has made a profound imprint on the collegiate athletes as well. Brennan McDaniel – who hails from Roswell, Georgia – is entering his senior year at UChicago. The Maroon forward feels strongly about his relationship with the Disney Elementary students.
"For me, the connection is everything," McDaniel said. "Especially being a black young man in the position that I am in, I feel that it is incumbent upon me to try and open that door of opportunity for those children that otherwise might not have a role model figure to look up to. Mentorship has played a big role in my life, so I feel as if I have an obligation to do the same. It doesn't take that much for a kid to get excited or motivated; they just need a small push in the right direction and if I can be that push, then that makes it all the better."
Incoming junior guard Ryan Martin echoed his teammate's sentiments. "I believe I can speak for the entire University of Chicago men's basketball program in saying that our involvement with Disney Elementary has been a great experience and awesome opportunity," said Martin, a native of Palatine, Illinois. "We serve as role models in the community, as these kids look up to us as individuals they aspire to become. It's an honor and privilege to be a role model to the younger generation, and we have used this platform to encourage Disney Elementary students to work hard and strive for their dreams."
UChicago's status as one of best schools in the country heightens the example that the college athletes embody. Riskus believes that the combination of a successful basketball career paired with high achievement in the academic realm shows his Disney students that they too can thrive in both environments.
In the mentorship sessions, it starts with the small and simple things, then builds from there. Talks about organization, establishing goals, self-discipline and building relationships with teachers. The small groups are pitched scenarios that focus on day-to-day issues and challenges the kids are going through, with the college athletes contributing the approaches that worked in the past for them.
"Most importantly, I tell them the importance of being a student first above all other extracurriculars," McDaniel said. "Education is a learned skill that stays with you forever, whereas sports and other crafts may not. Education also allows you to better make decisions for yourself and gives people the freedom to choose their own path, rather than simply take the path that was handed to them. I also stress the importance of time management. Being able to take care of your responsibilities (school, family, chores, etc.) first and then using the rest of your time as you please is a good trait to have and is easy to learn but hard to practice (even I am still working on this). So I think the earlier kids can wrap their minds around that, the better. And then lastly, is to just have fun with whatever you do. I think it is important to like what you do, and inevitably you tend to work harder at the things you like."
"I encourage the Disney students to make goals and work towards them, no matter how difficult they seem," Martin said. "Both classroom goals with good grades and being attentive in class, as well as goals in any extracurricular activities they enjoy. But most of all, being a student-athlete, I always stress the importance of education because sports do not last forever."
Much of that advice has taken root. UChicago's student-athletes have noticed the strides that the kids are making through their growing maturity. Some of the Disney students actively sought out individual Maroons to help them with homework after school. Attention spans and enthusiasm have increased for the UChicago guest speakers, with plenty of thoughtful follow-up questions. The demonstrated growth has invigorated the players to dive deeper into those connections.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought its own challenges this past spring of 2020. Schools were forced to do virtual classes in replacement of in-person attendance. Clinics were forced to be cancelled. Plenty of uncertainty throughout the nation has swirled in the months since.
McGrath and Riskus connected when the quarantine kicked in and arranged for UChicago's players to join Disney's virtual classes through Zoom to discuss and provide insight in regards to distance learning. The Maroons took part in four classes with two players at a time. It was a situation that the college students were also experiencing as UChicago moved to remote learning during the spring as well.
"Sharing and connecting with others is an important aspect of life, and our basketball program has been impacted significantly these past several months," McGrath said. "I imagine that is even more so for a young student in middle school. Creating an opportunity to address and fill this void was invaluable and something we all need more of."
Conversations touched on tips to staying mentally healthy, how to deal with anxiety, staying organized and keeping in touch with people during quarantine. But pandemic-related topics were only the start. Students also wanted to discuss vital issues currently affecting the nation, such as the protests and civil unrest about systemic racism and police brutality.
McDaniel believed the conversations were important for school-aged children to have, especially when so much emotion is involved in the issues that everyone is grappling with.
"We simply just asked how the kids felt about everything going on, and we got some very good feedback," McDaniel said. "Kids have loved ones who are sick due to COVID and are wondering why wearing masks has turned to a political debate. Others have police officers as parents and are wondering why the entire nation is taking jabs at their parents. Others are minority students who are tired of being treated different than their white counterparts. It was really touching to hear some of the commentary the kids were sharing.
"We explained that a lot of the circumstances they are going through are uncontrollable events, but that they could control how they reacted and went about them," he continued. "Putting yourself in other people's shoes, researching some of these problems, and talking to their parents about this stuff was something that we stressed. We explained that talking about these difficult situations and speaking up and out about how you feel is important and necessary, and is the first step towards making change. Overall, I think the conversation benefitted the players as much as it did the students and teachers."
As a new school year approaches, Riskus feels grateful for the strong relationship that has developed between UChicago and Disney Elementary.
"I really have to give Coach McGrath a lot of credit for putting a lot of time into this and actually wanting to make a change in the community," Riskus said. "It's a great example of what universities can do to keep youth engaged. I'm impressed with his ideas and how he's been able to mobilize everything. I'm thankful for him, the players and the university for everything they've done."