For Bridget Robinson, a Grade 7 student at Bear Creek Elementary, getting to meet Paralympian Brittany Hudak and feel the braille on her medal was an opportunity she never thought she would get to experience.
Robinson has Leber’s congenital amaurosis, an eye disorder that results in severe vision loss at a young age.
“It was so cool to meet a famous champion,” Robinson said. “I can relate to her. We both can overcome goals and persevere.”
Hudak, a para-nordic skier, was at Green Timbers Elementary to meet students from the classes she mentors through Classroom Champions.
Classroom Champions is a non-profit organization that partners underserved students in Canada and the U.S. with Olympians and Paralympians. The mentors give challenges to students based on a monthly lesson plan, and twice a year, the athlete Skypes with each classroom they mentor.
It was started by Olympian Steve Mesler and his sister, Leigh Parise, during Mesler’s final Olympic Games in Vancouver in 2010.
“The foundation of this was started with, ‘Let’s make a difference in my last year,’ and then it turned into something big,” Mesler told the Now-Leader during the celebration at Green Timbers Elementary. “I wanted to do something that the 10-year-old kid in us would have thought was ridiculous and amazing.”
Since its inception, Mesler said Classroom Champions has grown to about 10,000 students in about 300 classrooms in about 150 schools throughout Canada and the U.S. Mesler also said there is a waitlist of athletes who want to become mentors.
“But really, how’s it grown? It’s grown in the hands of great teachers,” he said. “It grows and lives and dies with the teachers in the schools.”
Diana Williams was one of the first teachers in the Surrey School District to be a part of Classroom Champions.
Williams said she found out about the organization through Twitter six years ago.
“I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ and so I applied. At the time, I was teaching at an inner-city school with a high Indigenous population, so I ticked all the boxes,” Williams said of the program where the mentor provides information and a monthly challenge for the students.
All the fun and excitement when your @ClassroomChamps athlete mentor, @brittanyhudak93 comes for a visit! #ClassroomChampions #sd36learn #askmehow #bettergetsbetter #justdance @SteveMesler pic.twitter.com/Hoh7oFdkKb
— Robyn Thiessen (@RobynThiessen) May 10, 2019
This past month, Williams said, Hudak focused on healthy living.
“Brittany talked about nutrition, sleep and exercise and then she issued a challenge for the students to choose one thing to track to get better at. My students were able to set a goal and then write down the steps they’re going to make to get to that goal and then they track their progress and then they reported back at the end of the month that 99 per cent of my kids either met their goal or beat their goal by the end of the month.”
Hudak said as a mentor she discusses topics such as diversity, goal setting and perseverance.
“Topics like that, that can be very impactful, especially at a younger age and we’ll tie in some of our athlete stories, why these topics are important to us with an example to help them kind of learn about those topics,” said Hudak, who was born missing part of her arm.
“For me, mentorship has always been really important. When I started skiing, I had a mentor and each time that I get a video from the teacher or see how the kids have done their challenges, I just find I reflect on some of the work I’m doing for myself… I think they inspire me as much as I can inspire them.”
Robinson said that when she found out a Paralympian was going to be her Classroom Champions mentor, she was “very happy and very excited.”
Asked if she has goals to play a sport professionally, Robinson said she hopes to one day play goalball, a sport for the blind and visually impaired.
Mesler said through Classroom Champions, teachers see improvements in the students through their attendance, grades and behaviour.
“All of a sudden, now it’s not just their teacher or parents who are looking at what they’re doing, but they have a paralympic medallist who’s investing in them and that means something,” Mesler said. “All of a sudden they realize the people who are doing these ridiculously amazing things are just like them and somebody who is different from them, is something they’re actually excited about.
“Imagine how all these kids are going to look at ability versus disability for the rest of their lives. They’re not going to see it the way the majority of the world sees it.”