Pitt's community service program teaches children -- and players -- about leadership, life
Pitt basketball player Chase Adams works with students at University Prep in the Hill District on an exercise to write a defining statement about themselves. Adams, coach Jamie Dixon and other players are involved with the community program working with children at the school.
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Pitt coach Jamie Dixon got the idea about starting a community service program in the Hill District when he would drive through the city neighborhood near the university in his recruitment of former Pitt All-American DeJuan Blair. He viewed the Hill District as a perfect place to have a program because of its proximity to the university and the impact his players could have on impressionable children there.
Blair left Pitt after two seasons this summer to pursue a professional career in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs, but Dixon and the university started the Jamie Dixon Timeout Program at University Prep middle school in the Hill District this fall with the idea of teaching youths about leadership and life skills through a series of workshops.
"We wanted to get our players involved in the area," Dixon said. "The players are able to interact with the kids. They can relate to them. I really think it will be a benefit to University Prep as well as our players. If you teach something to young children you're also reinforcing it for yourself."
Players and Pitt administrators speak to a group of middle school students once a month for an hour. On Monday, six players spoke to students about the importance of branding themselves, leadership and goal-setting at University Prep, in the building that was formally known as Milliones Middle School.
The University of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Public Schools collaborated to reopen the school as University Prep last year as a college preparatory school. The school district runs the day-to-day operations at the school, but the university is heavily involved in the academic programs and curriculum.
For many Pitt players it is an opportunity to impart wisdom on children much like them when they were growing up.
Pitt senior Jermaine Dixon, who grew up in Baltimore, lectured students on doing well in school. He told the story of the roundabout way that he matriculated to Pitt. Because of poor grades in middle school and high school, Dixon could not attend a four-year college out of high school and had to attend a junior-college in Florida before signing with Pitt last year.
Dixon said it was not until his older brother Juan signed a contract in the NBA and moved him out of the inner city that he realized the importance of doing well academically. But by then it was too late.
He enjoys reaching out to young students now in hopes that they won't make the same mistakes he made.
"I get a lot out of this," Jermaine Dixon said. "Growing up in my neighborhood I didn't have people to come back to talk to me. It wasn't until my brother got to college that I could talk to people like Steve Francis. I know what that did for me. I know [the students] look up to us."
Pitt junior Brad Wanamaker grew up in Philadelphia and knows the trials and tribulations that youth in the Hill District face. Poverty and crime persist, but Wanamaker said he and his teammates are examples that it is possible to overcome disadvantaged backgrounds and make it to college.
"I can relate to where these guys come from," Wanamaker said. "Anything is possible. I'm here right now, and I feel any of them can get through it, too. It's great for them to have something like this. It means a lot for them. I think it made their day. It's good for us to relate to them. Jermaine talked about his situation. I think that will give them confidence that they can think they'll be in Jermaine's shoes some day."
Andre McDonald is the middle school dean at University Prep and also the head boys' basketball coach at Allderdice High School. He said his students identify with college athletes from Pitt because of Blair, the popular native son who has promised McDonald that he will speak at the school once the NBA season is over.
"They're able to relate to them because they might know them, or know of them, or they have watched them play," McDonald said. "Our kids were in awe when the players came for the first time.
"We try to use sports as a platform to get kids interested in leadership skills. When they hear from the players about the classes they go to, the study halls they have to attend ... it's great for our students to hear about these things from them and have the players as mentors."
The director of the program is Charles Small, the assistant director of Pitt's life skills program in the university's athletic department. Small, who grew up in Detroit, is a former Pitt walk-on who played for Jamie Dixon from 2002-06.
Dixon credits Small for the success of the program. Small teaches the monthly workshops and devises curriculum for the children.
"A lot of these kids were like us when we were growing up," Small said. "They have a lot of potential. What they all have to do now is take advantage of the opportunity that we're giving them."
"Growing up in my neighborhood I didn't have people to come back to talk to me. ... I know the students look up to us."
-- Jermaine Dixon
First Published December 25, 2009 12:00 am