Last Saturday morning, at the University of Hartford Magnet School in Hartford, Connecticut, Caroline Dixon and Jordan Farrel were planting flowers. Caroline Dixon, a student at the University of Hartford, is a soccer player from Manchester, England. Jordan Farrel, a student at the magnet school on the university’s campus, plays soccer, softball, and basketball.

“You’re going to have to dig a hole,” Caroline told Jordan. “It’s going to be all you.”

“Ugh,” said Jordan.

“I KNOW you’ve got some muscles,” the soccer player said. “Is it hard? You want some help?”

Jordan said yes, and Caroline provided the assistance.

A clean-up project at the University of Hartford. (Photo courtesy of Wendy Knight)

A clean-up project at the University of Hartford. (Photo courtesy of Wendy Knight)

The planting was part of a community service day in which students from the University of Hartford, Boston University, The University of Albany, the University of Maryland in Baltimore, and the other five schools of the America East Conference worked with elementary and secondary school students on various projects: landscaping, trash collection, painting, and so on. Some of the benefits, according to 7-year-old University of Hartford Magnet School student Nico Rees, were obvious.

“We’re cleaning up trash so we can clean up the world, so animals don’t die,” he told me.

Another less obvious benefit from this association between the college athletes who serve as mentors and the young students with whom they regularly meet is the establishment of a bond between the two. The program in which the college mentors and younger students are involved is called College For Every Student (CFES), and according to University of Hartford Assistant Athletics Director Alexandra Morley, who helped recruit the flower-planting soccer players, evidence of the connections forged between the mentors and the students with whom they work and play has been dramatic.

“Just to see some of the kids who have mentors run into their arms has been great,” she said. “And they’re so excited, and our student athletes are being a great influence on them. I can’t think it’s been anything but a huge success.”

In this case, “huge” may be an understatement. According the College For Every Student’s own statistics, ninety seven percent of the youngsters who’ve graduated from high school after having been paired with college athletes under the auspices of the program have, in fact, found their way to college. Mike Lynch, the Director of Athletics at Boston University and a member of the board of directors of College For Every Student, regards the athletes in the America East Conference as role models, and says they can have a significant impact on the children they mentor.

“We’ve utilized our student athletes, who many times come from either privileged backgrounds, or backgrounds where they would have had the opportunity to go to school, unlike a lot of these young people that we’re impacting today. So for us it’s an opportunity on both sides of the fence, if you will. Our students have the opportunity to interact with people who they might otherwise not meet, and the young people with the CFES program have the opportunity to come to a campus like Boston University, and actually see that something like this is possible.”

(Photo courtesy of Wendy Knight)

(Photo courtesy of Wendy Knight)

Mike Lynch can address that latter opportunity from personal experience. Though Boston University has only been involved in the CFES Program for three years, the seed for his enthusiasm for the effort was planted when he was still an undergraduate at Rollins College in Florida.

As Mike Lynch tells it, one afternoon during his junior year, he was leaving his dorm when he was approached by a woman who had walked three miles across town to the campus on a 95-degree day, trailing two little boys behind her.

“The mother approached me,” Lynch told me. “All she asked was to take a look at my dorm room. I didn’t know exactly what she was getting at, but I said, sure, and I walked her upstairs. And she had two young boys with her, a seven year old and a five year old boy, and both of them walked in with her, and their jaws dropped. They said, ‘Wow, Mama, if this is what college is like, I’m going to go to college one day.’”

On the same day during which the athletes from the University of Hartford were planting flowers at the magnet school on their campus, athletes from Boston University were helping students at the Jackson Mann School in Boston clean up their building and the grounds around it. Among those athletes were rowers Hannah Rooney and Shoot Klem, who’d had no problem showing up early on a Saturday morning.

“Well, we both had races, so I was up at 6:30,” Klem said.

“And I was up at 5:30,” Rooney added.

(Photo courtesy of Wendy Knight)

(Photo courtesy of Wendy Knight)

“We were awake,” Klem said. “Early mornings aren’t a new thing. And it’s better to be doing something useful with our time.”

According to Noah Feder, who has been a program director and coordinator for CFES for two years, though that attitude is representative, CFES is active well beyond the schools of the America East Conference.

“We work with 140 schools in 23 states all over the country,” Feder said. “And we set up programs in our three core practices: mentoring, leadership through service, and pathways to college, with the goal of all our students wanting to go to college and being excited about going to college, and giving them the skills to succeed when they get there.”

On Saturday, the Jackson Mann School students participating in the day of service were accompanied by their assistant principal, Anita Moore, who is a booster of the CFES program.

“It’s gotten our kids on to college campuses,” Moore said. “They learn about the admissions process and the financial aid opportunities before they really need it. And they learn what they have to do to prepare for college.”

All this preparation and role-modeling…this community service and beautification and expanding the horizons of children whom CFES has identified as underserved is fine and noble stuff, of course. Certainly what these soccer players and rowers have been doing presents a welcome contrast to the ugly stories in which athletes are sometimes involved. But what was going on in Hartford and Boston last weekend wasn’t all work and no play. This became apparent to me when I asked University of Hartford soccer player Christina Ling about her relationship with the youngster whom she’s been mentoring.

“My buddy, Keon, he’s a lot of fun,” Ling said. “I leave every time with a smile on my face. He’s super smart, and he beats me in chess every time, so it’s kind of frustrating. But it’s just nice to be able to help someone out, and, like I said, every time I leave, I’m happier.”

Maybe that’s the message for college students looking for something to do between classes: This helping someone out? It’s fun.