‘It Takes a Village’ project connects Elon student-athletes with local children

Among those volunteering with the Village project this semester — members of Elon's men's and women's basketball teams. 

By Oliver Fischer ‘19

Anyone walking through the first floor of Mooney and second floor of Duke on a recent Wednesday night would have come across Elon basketball players working with children from the surrounding community to help them polish their skills. But these student-athletes weren’t offering advice on dribbling, defense or driving to the basket, but rather on reading, math and succeeding in school.

They have been volunteering with Elon’s “It Takes a Village” project during the recently completed semester to assist children with their English literacy and proficiency, while also learning something about themselves. The scores of students who now volunteer with the Village project are more than those majoring in education or considering careers in education.

Member’s of the Elon men’s basketball team talk with students in the Village project during a recent book-buying event at Barnes and Noble.

The “It takes a Village” project provides tutoring services for children in Alamance and surrounding areas, with a primary focus on literacy.  “We serve kids from pre-K to high school,” program coordinator Madelyn Pastrana said. “We are mainly literacy focused but we try to fill in gaps as necessary.”

Some examples outside of literacy include Elon Business Fellows working with fourth-graders on their math and with high school students on leadership development. “We have basketball players, we have business fellows, we have members of Elon faculty and staff, we have Elon students from many different disciplines across campus, we have several ABSS teachers, we have police officers,” Pastrana said.

Basketball players may seem like an unusual choice for a tutoring job, but men’s basketball coach Matt Matheny said the players enjoy working with the children and learn about themselves in the process.

“A lot of our guys gravitate to getting to know these kids and to really having an impact on the lives of these kids,” he said. “They get the opportunity to think of someone other than themselves. Our players hear this a lot — when you help somebody you help yourself.”

Women’s basketball coach Charlotte Smith views volunteering with the Village project as a way for her student-athletes to give back and to be enagaged with the local community. “I think it’s important for us to identify the deficiencies within our community and try to make a difference,” she said.

The players don’t just tutor, Smith said. These athletes build relationships with the children, too. The players recently participated in a book-buying event at Barnes and Noble that allowed the young students participating in the Village to add to their personal libraries. “They thought it was just about teaching young people how to read, but they walked away from the program having built relationships with those young people, and I think the children of the village project had just as much an impact on the players, as the players did on them,” she said.

​One of the basketball players present was Anna Popovic ‘21, who said seeing the children improve is one of the things she enjoys most. “Their personalities, they make it a good thing and I’ll see them become more knowledgeable or be able to answer questions I ask them quickly,” Popovic said.

Popovic’s teammate Lexi Mercer ’20 took the opportunity because it allows her to do something outside of basketball.

“I think it’s important to show that we’re more than just a basketball team, that we give back to the community that gives us so much,” Mercer said. “At the end of the day school is very important and it comes before basketball.”

But it’s not just the tutors who teach their children. Simon Wright ’21 tutors eighth-grader Juan Maya, who in turn taught Wright a thing or two. “He’s smart, he knows a lot about video games and stuff I have no idea about,” Wright said.

Along with helping students improve their literacy, the Village project brings together different people and connects the Elon community to surrounding areas.

“The relationships you build, both with the students that are coming in and also everyone that comes volunteering, we’re all in the same boat, participating in this connected event and it’s a good a way to get to know a lot of people,” said Tyler Seibring ’19, a member of the men’s basketball team. “This is a few of us trying to reach out in a different way outside of basketball and through education, which is really the most important thing.“

Reaching out to the community has helped parents and their children in more than just educational ways. “My little kid, she was shy, but with this program, she started to get into Kindergarten and it helps a lot to build more confidence,” Cesar Maya said.

His son Juan shares the positive experience of his sister and his English skills have improved thanks to the Village project. “It helped me a lot when it comes to literacy skills, reading to other people and like my dad said, confidence as well,” Juan Maya said.