March 5, 2020
by Lex Gillette
Six years ago I received an email telling me about a mentoring program. Classroom Champions is a nonprofit organization where athlete mentors are paired with students of underserved schools across the nation. The mentors are responsible for helping the kids learn about pertinent life skills inside and outside the classroom.
At the time, I was training for the Rio Paralympic Games. Although I thought the program sounded interesting, I didn’t think I would have enough time to devote to it. So, I put it to the back of my mind. Several months later, I received a tweet from Steve Messler. For those of you who don’t know, Steve Messler is a Gold Medal bobsledder. He was a pusher on Team USA’s four-man team that won in Vancouver in 2010.
Steve wanted to set up a phone call. During that call, I learned that Steve was the CEO and President of Classroom Champions, and he was very interested in getting me involved.
While we were speaking, I thought back to the initial email. Emails are often impersonal and just don’t have the same kick that an actual conversation does. I heard the fervor in Steve’s voice, how passionate he was. He and his sister, Dr. Leigh Mesler Parise, founded Classroom Champions and have grown it into an international organization affecting change in classrooms and donating needed technology. He is a strong advocate for the power of sport to make the world a better place.
During our phone call, he said, “You know what, Lex? I really would love for you to be a part of this program. I think that you have a lot to offer the children we serve. I think that you would also get a lot from the program as well. I just feel like you would be a great asset to our team, and we really want to go into schools to help kids to dream big. We want them to see that they matter. We want to enrich their lives and put them in a position where they can go out into the world, they can flourish, and they could be the best versions of themselves.”
He’s the head of this great organization and his passion was, and is, infectious. By the end of the conversation I found myself saying, “You know what? I would love to be a part of the program.”
Classroom Champions is a year-long program. Each month is dedicated to one skill. For example, every September, we have our goal setting month. We want to start those kids off learning about short-term and long-term goals. Oftentimes in life, goal setting is the trampoline that bounces us up to the next level. From there, we cover subjects like diversity, community, perseverance, teamwork, courage, friendship, and healthy living. We end the year with, “We are champions.”
For example, when we talk about goal setting, I tell my kids about short-term goals and long-term goals. At the end of the video, I say to them, “All right, guys, I want you to write down what your long-term goal is for the school year. Then I want you to write down three short-term goals that you can achieve along the way that will ultimately help you accomplish your long-term goal.”
As part of the program, they either write down their answers or they record videos. As a blind mentor, I love the videos. I’m able to listen to what the kids are saying. Being able to actually hear my students throughout the year helps me out a lot because it enables me to hear their vocal variety, their vocal inflection, how they speak, and the words they say. For me, having that vocal feedback builds an image of who my kids are.
Since the program is virtual, I have a lot of reach throughout the country. I’m located in San Diego, California, but I have had classrooms in Seymour, Indiana; Camden, New Jersey; Phoenix, Arizona; and even right up the road in Los Angeles. I contribute the videos monthly, but I also do a live chat with my kids once during the fall and once during the spring.
2014 was my first year with Classroom Champions, and I’ve been totally locked in ever since. To say that the program is near and dear to my heart is an understatement. When I began to lose my sight when I was eight years old, I totally remember how important it was, how crucial and critical it was to have a mentor.
Nothing comes close to the direction you receive when someone is consistently there and is dedicated to helping you along. You know you have someone in your corner, someone who is going to support you, someone who will take you under their wing, and they’re not going to allow anything to happen to you that would have a negative impact.
I feel that same responsibility to the students I mentor in Classroom Champions. I don’t want anything to happen to these kids. I don’t want them to fall by the wayside. I don’t want them to fall through the cracks. What I do want is for them to be equipped with absolutely everything I can possibly provide. I want them to go confidently into the world. I want them to realize how amazing they can be in their communities and in their lives.
My First Year Highlight
During healthy living month, which is typically during the month of April, there is a contest. During this contest, specific classes are nominated and the ones that are chosen will get in-class visits from their mentors. That’s an exciting time of the year, and I love that opportunity to go and visit one of my classrooms from the year.
When you work with students for an entire year, you learn a lot about them. You don’t just learn who they are inside the classroom. You learn who they are on the field of play, and they tell you about their families.
They tell you so much information, that visiting them in person feels like visiting a good friend. It brings that relationship full circle. You can’t help but want to see them succeed. You want to see them go out and do awesome things.
During the 2014-15 school year, I mentored Mrs. Jennifer Regruth’s class in Seymour, Indiana. (Shout out to my kids at Margaret R. Brown Elementary School! Although, they’ve probably moved on to middle or high school by now.) Mrs. Regruth’s class won the contest to have me visit them at the end of the school year.
Classroom Champions scheduled all my travel. They made sure I was able to get there safely. But when Mrs. Regruth picked me up from the airport on that day in 2015, I didn’t realize how impactful that day would be.
Before we even got to the school, they had a firetruck pick me up. I arrived at Brown Elementary with the horn blaring and the siren wailing. The kids were outside the school, and they were yelling, “We want Lex. We want Lex. We want Lex.”
At that particular moment, I understood not only how much of an impact I could make, but how much more of an impact that the kids had on me. After more cheering and a ride up and down in the fire engine’s ladder, I made it inside.
And as they have done in American elementary schools since the founding of the United States, we did the Pledge of Allegiance. I was petrified when I heard we were going to do the Pledge, and I was totally sure I would screw up the words. Fortunately, after saying the Pledge for so many years in elementary school, I found it’s seared into my memory. I even remembered ‘indivisible.’
One of the kids from my class, named Faithe, was well beyond her years. Some of the things that she wrote and said were so eloquent and profound. I would just marvel, “Are you sure you’re really 11 years old?” Faithe led the morning announcements for the school. She had a special write-up for me specifically, introducing me to the rest of the school.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, the mayor came to the school and read an official proclamation naming May 18th of 2015 ‘Lex Gillette Day.’ in Seymour, Indiana. From that point forward, it was a day full of major fun. We played tee ball, basketball, and kickball. We did an in-person Q&A where I got to answer a lot of the questions the kids weren’t able to ask throughout the year.
Mrs. Regruth’s class and I were in close contact during the year. Oftentimes during the week, they would send me a question of the day or a question of the week. I would respond to them on Twitter and let them know, “Yeah, I use an iPhone. I have a computer.” I even answered one of their questions about what I remember seeing before I was blind, “Yeah, I remember how to write my name with a pen and pencil.”
One of the best things about kids, is their lack of filters. They had genuine questions not just about my athletics, but how I saw the world without sight. They asked if I had pets or what my favorite foods were. It was the little things that taught us about each other and allowed our relationships to grow that year.
Oh, and the letters! Mrs. Regruth and her class had all written letters to me and had them transcribed into braille. It was absolutely amazing to feel their words and curiosity for myself.
They were very smart kids. Prior to us really getting to know each other, Mrs. Regruth asked the kids what they thought blind people were like. Questions like: How do blind people live their lives? How do they get around? What do you think about blind people? What is your perception of people who are blind?
Many of their responses were very much from the view of someone losing their sight. “Blind people probably feel alone. They probably live in darkness. They’re probably scared.” Now in their letters and during my visit, I marveled at how drastically their responses had changed:
- Damen: "When I think of a blind person now, I think of Lex-how he set his goals and he is trying to reach them."Brandon: "I don't feel that scared if I went blind, because, like Lex said, 'Blindness just might be another way to see.'"Daetona: "I have learned a good lesson about don't judge people by how they look or why they look like it."Breanna: "...and you don't worry about what something really looks like-you judge by heart..."Isaac: "Blind people can do whatever they choose to do."Katya: "I don't think you can be blind. You see right through a person- who they are."Aiden: "NEVER judge a book by its cover. I HATE when people are labeled, so I think blind people are the same of me or anyone else. Having Lex made me change my mind about people."Elanis: "There is nothing different about blind people except they can't see-they can do everything we can do."Rylin: "I think even though Lex is blind, he can actually see with his mind."Savannah: "Now I'm not so sorry anymore. I can't believe what I can learn from blind people."Brooke: "I learned when you are blind, you can still get around, you just have different tools!"
I still remember very clearly that Faithe had written something that, for her age, was very masterful. She said, “At the end of the day, if you can see from your heart and feel from your heart, you can do anything! Why? Well, the heart is the most powerful thing because without a heart, how can you love, and love is the biggest thing in the world.”
I think that, as individuals and as people, we’ve totally strayed away from that concept of seeing with our hearts. With a world that can have so much hatred, so much wrongdoing, and so much craziness, I think love often escapes us. Thank you, Faithe.
The day I spent in Seymour, Indiana with Mrs. Regruth’s class, was a day of no limitations, no boundaries. Nobody said, “You look like this, or you look like that.” There was no discrimination. There was none of that.
We were just all human beings having a good time, enjoying each other, understanding each other, and learning from each other. It was a culmination of open discussions about the skills needed to live our best lives. It was a celebration of what can happen when you genuinely want to learn about somebody, when you genuinely want to help someone. It was the realization that we’re all here viewing the world with our different perspectives, and when we put them all together, we’re all able to see more.
That’s what those kids did for me in my first year with Classroom Champions. They showed me something that I couldn’t see myself. They probably didn’t even realize how much they taught me. They cemented in me a value I carry on in all my speeches, my interviews, and my relationships… Together, we can teach people to see.
Lex Gillette is a professional keynote speaker, 4x Paralympic Medalist, and 4x Long Jump World Champion who is currently training to win gold at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. He has been wowing audiences of all sizes with his athletic gift since 2004, and he has been inspiring audiences on the corporate stage since 2013. His ultimate goal is to teach others to look past their current reality and challenge them to see further than they ever thought possible.
Photo credits: Classroom photo by Lex Gillette; Lex B&W photo by Alex Ingram - ArtIsBeing