CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Five members of Harvard's football team found themselves leading teams of a different variety this summer, looking for a different kind of victory. These gentlemen of the gridiron committed nine weeks of their summer vacations to teaching low-income children the fundamentals of literacy and learning through the Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA).
The PBHA is a student-run public service organization that strives to promote social awareness through social service and social action. Historically, the PBHA, founded in 1900, has done outreach work with the mentally ill, the incarcerated, homeless individuals, and public housing communities. The Summer Urban Program (SUP) streamlines the greater mission of the PBHA into focusing on low-income students of Boston and Cambridge, and to helping assimilate high-school age refugee and immigrant students by teaching English as a second language and greater cultural understanding of their new country.
Juniors Noah Van Niel, B.J. Merriewether, and Steven Williams, along with sophomores Andrew Berry and Brenton Bryant, eschewed the opportunity to work in the corporate sector this summer for a chance to enrich the lives of PBHA students, ages 6 to 20, by participating in SUP in various neighborhoods of Boston and Cambridge.
B.J. Merriewether a wide receiver from Jacksonville, Fla., said that as soon as he heard about the program, he knew it was something he wanted to do. Merriewether, who served as a director of the Roxbury Youth Initiative, helped design a curriculum taught to roughly 80 kids from the Roxbury area. Under his watch, students learned about literacy, mathematics, science, government and history. They spent their mornings in classrooms, learning the fundamentals of these subjects to keep their minds sharp between school years. The kids took educational field trips each afternoon exploring Boston and outlying areas, designed to apply the knowledge they were gaining in the classroom. This, said Merriewether, afforded the kids an opportunity to be exposed to different kinds of people.
"I grew up in a predominately black neighborhood," said Merriewether. "I wasn't exposed to other ethnicities much. I wanted to help get these kids into other types of places."
David Dance, the staff director who oversaw Merriewether's program, said Merriewether's commitment and work have been outstanding.
"He's really been fantastic," said Dance. "The relationships he fostered were extremely productive and the atmosphere was very positive. He's an excellent mentor. He's really wowed everybody as the summer has progressed."
Cornerback Andrew Berry, of Bel Air, Md., echoed Merriewether's sentiments about the work he's done in the Cambridge Youth Enrichment Program. Berry taught third-graders math, literacy and other core academics for about three hours a day before supervising their afternoon field trips. To Berry, the most important thing was seeing the impact he was having on students' lives.
"People think because Harvard is in Cambridge that all of Cambridge must be affluent," Berry said. "It's not, really. It's not all like Harvard Square. There are some really needy areas."
Each of the five Crimson players has become more of an advocate for the area he spent much of his summer working in. Each says it was a challenging, rewarding experience he wouldn't trade. And each player has walked away feeling like he's given back to his community in a meaningful way.
Noah Van Niel, a fullback from Newton, Mass., taught English as a second language through the Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment (RYSE) program. His students were refugees and immigrants between the ages of 12 and 20. Van Niel worked primarily with students who had lived in America for up to a few years, but who still weren't confident in their speaking abilities. Instead of teaching them the basics of the language, he focused on helping them experience poetry, novels and even Shakespeare. He describes his students as eager to learn and says he hopes he enriched their language skills.
"I feel a real sense of accomplishment," Van Niel said. "Each kid spoke better English when they left than when they came in. I feel like I've given them, hopefully, a positive role model, in the classroom and outside it. I've tried to give them an appreciation of learning and of school, so when they go back in the fall, they'll have the confidence to know they can succeed."
In the coming months and years, organizations like the PBHA can look forward to greater support from the Harvard Crimson. Head coach Tim Murphy is encouraging all of his players to get involved in their communities.
"I'm very proud of these guys because, to a man, they passed up higher paying corporate jobs to give something back," said Murphy, who plans to formally implement community outreach into the Harvard program.
"Our guys have a record of community service," said Murphy. "But we are going to formalize our program, naming it ‘Crimson in the Community,' with a goal of 100 percent participation by team members. Our kids have a lot on their plates, but it's important to recognize how fortunate we are and to give back. Many Harvard players have done it, but this will increase participation and documentation."
All five players had different experiences this summer, but all agreed it was a bonding experience, as they were able to share teaching experiences and funny anecdotes with one another during morning workouts. Van Niel expressed gratitude for having had the opportunity to teach camp this year and hopes to return next year. Berry marveled that his efforts had such a strong impact on the students.
But maybe Merriewether summed it up best for the group when he said, "It's been a blast!"