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Senior football player Jordon Harlamert reads with Gier Elementary fourth grader Matthew Dunning.
(Photo: Jill Shreffler | Courtesy)

When junior offensive lineman Tyler Scholl visits fourth-graders at Gier Elementary every week, they ask him when he’ll be back. And they’re disappointed when he reminds them they have to wait another week — even though he’s been doing this for two years.

Scholl is one of 14 Hillsdale College football players who read to Gier Elementary students and help them with math and reading skills for about an hour every week, according to Jill Shreffler, a 4th-grade teacher at the school. Shreffler helped start the volunteer program about 12 years ago at Mauck Elementary with her husband, assistant football coach Nate Shreffler. They moved the program to Gier when Mauck closed in 2010, Jill Shreffler said.

No one requires the football players to go, but Nate Shreffler said he’s seen an eagerness to help; about a dozen players sign up every semester.

“Our guys genuinely have a desire to give back,” Nate Shreffler said. “I don’t push it on them or anything, and we always have a lot of guys that jump on it.”

The volunteer work is rewarding, Scholl said, noting that many of the 4th-graders know him well since he helped the 3rd-grade class last year. Most days, he’ll listen to 4th-graders read to 1st-graders, then sit with students as they read and write letters to pen pals, answering their questions about spelling and how to decipher cursive. Last week, he helped out with a science experiment, too.

“The highlight of the time would be just how excited the kids get when you show up,” he said. He arrives early, just as the kids’ recess is ending, so he can say “hi.”

The boys ask him all about football and the girls chatter to him about things he doesn’t understand, he said, but he nods and engages when he can. He enjoys the funny moments: Once, a kid came up to him in the hall and said, “You’re really big. Are you a 5th-grader?”

“They think you know everything,” he said. Ever since the students learned he’s in a Spanish class, he said, they ask him to translate everything into Spanish.

“It’s cool how much they appreciate you taking an hour out of your week,” Scholl said.

“The Chargers are excellent role models for our students,” Jill Shreffler said in an email. “We’ve been fortunate to have Chargers football players volunteer for many years and all of the feedback I’ve received from teachers, students, parents and players has been extremely positive. It is also a great connection between the college and the community.” 

For head football coach Keith Otterbein, this volunteer work is a big part of the team’s character.

“Every opportunity that we have to pay back for those less fortunate than us, we try to take advantage of,” he said.

“When I was in elementary school, if a college football player came in, that would just be the coolest thing ever,” he added. “Those kids just look in awe at our players. It’s a great reminder to our players … not to let those kids down.”’

Otterbein said the team does other volunteer work, such as a youth camp in the spring, a Make-A-Wish event this week, and a Victory Day program to help people with special needs at the Michigan Tech game last month. They’ve also talked about doing a community leaf clean-up this fall, he said.

Volunteer work is important for Charger athletes across all teams —  and is encouraged by the G-MAC, said head women’s tennis Coach Nicole Walbright, who is the faculty adviser for the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. The G-MAC doesn’t require volunteer work, but it does ask teams to log volunteer hours, something the previous conference didn’t do, Walbright said.

“Just being a Hillsdale College student, that’s what we try to promote,” Walbright said, pointing out that because so much of athletes’ support comes from the community, it’s especially important for them to give back.

Most Charger teams delve into some kind of volunteer work. For example, the men’s and women’s tennis teams will host a community tennis event on Saturday, allowing anyone to come play with the team for a couple hours, Walbright said. Members of the softball team helped out with a softball camp for younger kids a few weeks ago, said junior outfielder Katie Kish. And the women’s basketball team’s volunteer activities this semester include helping out at Salvation Army, providing a meal for a family at Thanksgiving, and donating toys and clothes for children at Christmas, head coach Matt Fritsche said.

The track team tackles a volunteer project every year, senior Rachael Tolsma said: last year, they cleaned a local cemetery, and this year, they’ll be setting up a table in the Grewcock Student Union to collect cards for adopted and foster children, then send the notes with blankets.

For the past three years, the entire men’s basketball team has helped out at the Hillsdale invitational cross-country meet —  even though it’s on the first day of classes for the college, MaryMargaret Peter said, head coach of the cross-country team at Hillsdale High and Middle schools. The basketball players help set up the meet, direct traffic, collect tags at the finish line, and clean up.

“It’s cool to see them out in the community,” Peter said. “It’s been a really great example of giving back. It especially registers with high schoolers, and they are more willing to help with middle schoolers in return.”

Otterbein commented on the eagerness of Hillsdale students to throw their efforts into helping the community.

“They’re good kids. The character, integrity, and work ethic of our kids across the board is mind-boggling,” he said. “When those opportunities come up, they take them.”

Although the G-MAC requirement for tracking volunteer hours is new, Otterbein said it won’t change anything for Charger athletes, who already prioritize volunteering.

When it comes to helping the community, “it’s business as usual,” he said.