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Florida athletes take on mentoring Oakwood students
Though athletes will change, the program will not
Oakwood Elementary School students Dylan Hanes, top, Jullian Fillingham and John-Luke Iodice listen to University of Florida student-athletes, from left, Tahnai Annis, Jeff Demps and Gray Horn during a videoconference “virtual mentoring” session Tuesday. - photo by Tom Reed

Gainesville athletes are taking time to mentor students 375 miles away — in Oakwood.

Every Tuesday morning, a small group of Oakwood Elementary School students spend time with athletes from the University of Florida.

They are participating in C.A.M.P. Gator, a mentoring program that pairs athletes and nonathlete students with elementary and middle school students throughout the region via videoconferencing.

The group spends around 30 minutes each week with its university mentors.

For Oakwood it is all athletes: Gray Horn, track and field; Jeff Demps, track and field/football; and Tahnai Annis, soccer.

“For us to get a chance to talk to a bunch of kids and possibly change their lives for the better is great,” said Demps. “When I was coming up I wish we would have had something like this. For a college student to come talk to us would have changed a lot of things.”

The role is still fresh for the athletes and the students. Tuesday’s discussion was only the second one.

“It’s just insane that we get to do this,” said Dalton Smith, a fifth-grader at Oakwood. “It just feels like such an honor just to talk to these athletes.”

The students will continue to meet with the same athletes for the next six weeks in, what principal Shane Rayburn hopes, is a successful pilot program.

“Having a relationship with someone that is outside of the teacher, parent, principal (role) who you think genuinely cares about you — that’s pretty big, even if it’s on a virtual level,” said Rayburn.

The ultimate goal is to participate in a yearlong mentoring program with Florida and hopefully other area universities, including the University of Georgia.

“In this day and age, you can do that virtually just as well as you can face to face,” said Rayburn.
The athletes talk with the elementary students about everything from habits to goals to their own life experiences, while providing the children an audience to share their thoughts.

“Knowing that we can have an influence on kids and knowing how cool they probably think it is means a lot to us,” said Horn.

Horn says he remembers looking up to Ohio State athletes and wishing he could connect to them like the Oakwood students are connecting with him.

“It really does make a difference,” he said.

The students tend to listen.

“They’re in college so they can tell you what to look forward to and how hard you have to work (to succeed),” said Alex Allen, a fifth-grader.

Although the Florida athletes may change in the coming years, the core principle behind the program, Rayburn says, will not.

“When it’s all said and done, it’s about the relationship,” he said.

“It gives them that moment in time to think they could (be like the athletes). Those kids at that table have dreams and want to be something.”

The group of students will continue to develop that relationship through the rest of the school year and says it will look forward to Tuesday morning from now on.

“It’s fun because they tell us if we are proactive, our career could be great and we can achieve greatness by hard work,” said Naiomi Henry, a third-grader.

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