CHAMPAIGN – Six-year-old Kaylee Bowers was wearing her Warren Carter basket-ball jersey earlier this week, as she does nearly every Tuesday, when Carter visits her school.
The first-grader and the basketball player sat side by side on the floor in a hallway at Garden Hills Elementary School, Carter listening while Kaylee read books to him.
"Hey, is your favorite person here today?" Garden Hills Principal Cheryl O'Leary asked as she passed by. Kaylee's response was a huge grin.
Carter spends two mornings a week at Garden Hills, helping students with math and reading – and sometimes shooting baskets with them. He also spends two mornings a week at Barkstall Elementary School.
O'Leary believes having athletes like Carter in her school has been part of a cultural change in the building, including a dramatic drop in discipline problems. Carter and teammate Rich McBride, who also volunteers at Garden Hills, are carrying on a relationship between the school and University of Illinois athletes that started with James Augustine and Dee Brown in 2002.
That spring, Augustine was a guest at the school's Student-of-the-Month lunch. Only children with no discipline referrals were allowed to participate. The program wasn't working as well as O'Leary had hoped, until she brought Augustine to the school that April.
"Between April and May, we had the biggest drop in discipline referrals ever, because the kids wanted to be student of the month," she said.
Since then, a UI athlete has been at the lunch every month.
"They never missed a month, even during the Final Four year," O'Leary said. "They don't want to disappoint the children. They are very dedicated to the kids."
When McBride began volunteering, he said students would ask about being on the basketball team.
"Now it's, 'You need to score more,'" he said.
But while they talk sports sometimes, the focus is on the children's schoolwork.
"It's not all about playing basketball with them. It's how you become a better student," O'Leary said.
Fourth-grade teacher Jim Iddings often has athletes help in his classroom.
"We've got some kids who, all they dream about is growing up to play sports," Iddings said. "It's nice for them to see athletes are in a classroom setting, helping with reading and helping with math, so they see there are other things to these athletes. They think the only thing in the world Dee Brown does is play basketball. They didn't realize he had to go to class, too."
Carter requested to work with children for an internship he has with the UI athletic department.
"I like to get to know them. Not just do math and leave, but find out what their interests are," Carter said. "I like to know if they have brothers or sisters, what their family is like, if they like sports or music, what they do in school. You find out so much about them. You never know what you're going to have in common with them."
He listened Tuesday as Kaylee read a book about pigs.
"Pigs spend a lot of time in the mud. Do you know why?" she read.
"Do you know why? I don't," Carter said, laughing.
After she finished the book, he said, "It kind of makes me want to get a pig. Do you want a pig?"
"I don't have enough mud at my house," she replied.
A few minutes later, she told him, "You are probably taller than my dad."
"How tall do you think your dad is?" Carter asked.
"Fifteen feet," Kaylee said.
In another wing of the school, McBride helped Jamiah Dalton and Elizabeth Weeks as the fourth-graders read a story and answered questions about it.
"I think it's nice of him, because my sister, she doesn't even do that," Jamiah said.
"They're just real good kids," McBride said. "Any time you can be around little kids, it just makes you feel good to see them succeed, and help them succeed."
Barkstall Principal Trudy Walters said Carter has made a tremendous difference for one student at her school. She paired him with a child who had a tragedy in his life and fell several weeks behind on schoolwork. In three weeks, he has made up most of the missing work.
"This student just needed someone to give him a little bit of special time," Walters said. "It wasn't so much that it was Warren Carter, number 41. It was Warren Carter, somebody who showed special interest in (the student)."
Walters said Carter talked about the importance of homework and "helped the student understand that there are certain things you have to do, whether you are a basketball star or a fifth-grade student behind in your homework. I just know this is going to be invaluable for that student."
O'Leary has kept the athletes' visits to Garden Hills quiet, not wanting to generate too much attention, especially when the basketball team went to the NCAA championship game. But she wants people to know the contributions they have made.
"They have touched the lives of some really needy kids," she said.
"I'm more honored to come than they are excited for me to be here," Carter said. "I hope maybe I put a smile on their face, that it makes them happy for the week. Kind of like two recesses in a day."