It was a whole new ballgame for five Mercer University athletes Monday.
The college students led the second- and third-grade classes at Carter Elementary School in some physical education activities.
Natalie Rayburn hopes similar programs can happen in elementary schools across Bibb County. Her son, Alexander, is a second-grader at Carter who is on the autism spectrum.
She was inspired to organize the event after hearing a story about a Florida State University football player who had lunch with an autistic boy — whom he saw sitting alone — while visiting a Tallahassee middle school.
“I thought, ‘We have a wonderful university in our backyard. Why aren’t we doing that more in public school?” Rayburn said. “Mercer jumped all over (the opportunity). I can’t speak highly enough about the work they’ve done.”
Children with special needs or autism have social barriers and can feel excluded, she said. Lunch and recess are times when the students can really socialize with their peers, and the Mercer athletes helped them all join together for group play Monday, said Mary Kathryn Brundige, the school’s speech therapist. The program also aims to raise awareness of autism.
“(We’re) trying to figure out a way to not just provide some support for kids who have some social deficits but teach classmates to reach out,” Rayburn said.
Basketball players Cory Kilby and JJ N’Ganga, Director of Basketball Operations Jonathan Howard, softball player Quirisa Mauga and soccer player Haleigh Svede got right in on the fun and games with the students. They shot hoops, jumped rope, competed in sack races and scooter races, knocked over bowling pins and played a modified game of dodge ball.
“Our athletes love working with kids. They love going to the schools,” said Emily French, Mercer’s former community service coordinator who helped find volunteers for the event. “It seems like a good idea to get the ball rolling and get this started and make it long term and sustainable.”
Svede only planned to work with the second-graders Monday, but she was having such a good time that she stayed to play with the third-graders too, she said. She remembers looking up to college athletes as a child, and now she can be a role model for the students.
Next week, Mercer athletes are scheduled to visit Carter and Springdale Elementary, the two pilot sites for the program.